Crowd-funded LightSail Solar Sail Launches May 20

A LightSail solar sail prototype will be launched into orbit on May 20, to test the unfolding process of the spacecraft’s giant sails. The project has been crowd sourced through Kickstarter for The Planetary Society. The CEO, famous American public television personality, Bill Nye the “Science Guy,” explains that using solar sails that use photons from the sun as propulsion will allow man to move throughout space faster and cheaper than through using chemical propellants.

LightSail Solar Sail Concept Not New

The adventure and concept of using photons from the sun to push along spacecraft is nothing new to scientists. Well-known astronomer, Carl Sagan, described the process on television during a segment on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show 40 years ago in 1976.

Photons from the sun don’t have any mass, but they do have momentum, according to scientists, and they move at a constant rate. Using sails to collect this solar wind for the LightSail solar sail will push the spacecraft, starting out slow, but picking up speed. According to scientists, the craft will eventually move much faster than chemical propellants can push.

The first spacecraft to use this type of solar wind propulsion was the Japanese probe Ikaros, which used the method to sail to Venus in 2010. Also, in January 2011, NASA tested the NanoSail-D2 and the craft burned up in Earth’s atmosphere as planned in November 2011. The sizes of the spacecraft’s sails were 185 square feet and 110 square feet respectively.

Test Run to Major Mission in 2016

The May 20 launch of the LightSail solar sail is a test for a bigger project planned for next year and won’t actually be testing the propulsion, just the sail deployment. The Planetary Society is looking to crowd source the $4.5 million to complete the entire project and much of that has already been raised. The project apparently has many backers, as after Bill Nye posted the Kickstarter video, the program had already pulled in over $200,000 in less than 48 hours. However, they still have to raise $1.2 million to fully fund the LightSail solar sail mission set for next year.

This LightSail solar sail test craft will have sails covering 345 square feet, made of Mylar that is only 4.5 microns thick – that’s one quarter that of a trash bag. It will carry a small craft about the size of a bread loaf named CubeSat from which the sails will unfurl in a measuring-tape like fashion. Going up with LightSail will be the Prox-1 spacecraft that will be along to take photographs. LightSail is set to go up 447 miles above Earth before opening up. It will launch from Cape Canaveral.

Scientists are saying that this solar wind technology can allow man to explore space more economically, as chemical fuels will not be necessary. Using the photons from the sun as propulsion is something that is nearly limitless and is akin to the wind on Earth that explorers used to explore our planet. The Planetary Society hasn’t divulged the adventure for the 2016 launch of the LightSail solar sail, but it is sure to be something exciting and interesting.