There are thousands of satellites in space right now, all of which for different purposes but are all similar in how they are powered, it’s either through rocket fuel, thrusters, or other contraptions. One of them, however, is powered by the sun’s rays.
LightSail 2, who boarded a Falcon X rocket along with other payloads, is harnessing the power of the sun. And no, it’s not through solar panels because a ton of other satellites already uses those to convert the sun’s energy to electricity.
This particular satellite literally uses the sun’s rays to help it steer into a direction or help it glide and orbit the Earth.
The prototype spacecraft is developed by a group called the Planetary Society, an international nonprofit headed by famed science communicator Bill Nye.
”It’s counter-intuitive, it’s surprising, and to me, it’s very romantic,” Nye told reporters during a press call Wednesday, “to be sailing on sunbeams.”
In over a decade, Planetary Society has been trying to experiment how modern spacecraft can take advantage of a centuries-old concept called solar sailing.
In a nutshell, solar sailing suggests that a rocket can be propelled by a slow, constant push from photons, which are light particles that have no mass but still carry momentum.
On Wednesday, the group called their exploratory mission a success. They told on Twitter that they have completed raising its ”orbit around Earth using sunlight alone, something that’s never been done before.”
Japan made the first solar sailing spacecraft in 2010, but it was never able to shift the direction it was headed towards manually.
Planetary Society wanted to achieve the feat first in 2005, but their first Light Sail crashed along with a rocket launching off to space.
Furthermore, according to the group, LightSail 2 is ”now the highest performing solar sail to date, and it’s 100% crowdfunded by our members and backers!”
Another reason why it took the group another few years was that it needed to find ways to fund their $7 million spacecraft.
In all, there we’re 50,000 supporters from 109 countries who donated to the initiative, according to Planetary Society COO Jennifer Vaughn.
The satellite reached its intended orbit on June 23 and has been drifting in low-orbit Earth for over a month.
It wasn’t until last week when it opened its sails for the first time. In the eight days or so since, the spacecraft has raised its orbit by 1.7 kilometers, pushed along solely by the Sun’s photons, which ”bounce off” its reflective sails.
LightSail 2 was able to maneuver its sail to harness photons’ momentum, which offered a “tiny push no stronger than the weight of a paperclip” each time the spacecraft lapped Earth, according to the Planetary Society.
The gentle nudges added up. In just a few days, LightSail 2’s distance from Earth grew by about 1.7 km, or about one mile said project manager David Spencer.
”Years of computer simulations. Countless ground tests. They’ve all led up to now. The Planetary Society’s crowdfunded LightSail 2 spacecraft is successfully raising its orbit solely on the power of sunlight, ” the group said on Twitter.
At the moment, their algorithm is still being updated and tweaked. One of the biggest challenges so far has been refining the spacecraft’s momentum, which is controlled by a spinning wheel.
This momentum wheel is used to change the craft’s orientation so that it turns the thrust from solar sailing on and off. When the wheel starts approaching maximum speed, which it does a couple of times per day, it needs to be slowed down.
Planetary Society has “no plans to do a third light sail right now,” Nye said. Though he listed a few types of exploration missions, he hoped to see powered by solar sails — including long-distance trips to rendezvous with threatening asteroids, or missions to monitor the sun’s weather and provide a warning for potentially catastrophic solar flareups.
If space exploration companies lean into the idea, solar sailing could potentially be a tremendous benefit because it has the potential to be an unlimited source of fuel.
Meanwhile, for everyone who donated to fund the project, there aren’t any specific economic returns from the group’s success.
“The type of return on investment these people get is just knowledge,” Vaughn said Wednesday. “It’s capability. That’s the kind of returns these people are looking for.”