The Planetary Society, chaired by Bill Nye, recently put out and promoted a Kickstarter campaign that would produce the LightSail. The LightSail “solar sail” is a piece of fabric that sails on photon power. This propulsion system is now moving a satellite around Earth orbit, having been successfully launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that was also carrying the X-37B space plane and a total of 10 CubeSats.
The solar sail launch was pushed back by problems with the Air Force’s secretive X-B37 spaceplane.
The solar sail, originally an idea of astronomer Carl Sagan, has been championed by Bill Nye and the Planetary Society. They raised their original $200,000 goal, needed to build the sail, in less than a day using a Kickstarter campaign, and planned to launch a SolarSail-powered craft by May 6th. However, the launch date was pushed back to yesterday, the 20th, because the Air Force was troubleshooting the X-37B.
The launch went as expected, and all of the Atlas rocket’s payload was unloaded at the right altitudes. This is more or less as far as we know, though, since there was a part of the launch that is unaccounted for. On account of the X-37B, there was a window of time during which no information was reported. The Air Force has been very secretive about the X-37B, to the point that we don’t even know which of the two existing spaceplanes was sent up. The test is said to have involved on-board experiments, about which next to nothing is known. It also had two other experiments that we do know about: one testing a new ion thruster used by military communication satellites, the other testing the effects of space exposure on 100 different materials.
The LightSail solar sail itself is made from three CubeSats and four deployable solar sails made from Mylar. The craft is currently too low to effectively solar sail, since it’s going to get caught up in atmospheric drag. The point of the experiment, though, was to test the sail deployment sequence and critical systems, in preparation for the extended mission scheduled to take place in 2016. Since everything about this launch is looking good, we can expect to hear much more about the LightSail’s progress in the coming year.