The LightSail 2 solar sail is still in orbit more than two years after launch

The LightSail 2 solar sail is still in orbit more than two years after launch

An experimental spacecraft that is testing solar sails as a means of economical space propulsion that could power future missions to distant places is still absorbing the sun's rays into Earth's orbit, more than two and a half years after its launch. The spacecraft, called LightSail 2, is a cubesat the size of a loaf of bread but equipped with a solar sail the size of a boxing ring: it covers about 32 square meters. This sail captures incoming photons from the sun, just like a wind sail captures moving air, to propel the spacecraft.

LightSail 2 is a private project of the Planetary Society, a non-purpose organization for-profit space education based in the United States. The results of the experiment have been included in the design of upcoming NASA missions such as NEA Scout, Solar Cruiser and ASC3 which will be based on solar sails, the Planetary Society said in a statement on Monday (Nov.15). NEA Scout, one of the "passengers" of NASA's upcoming Artemis 1 mission, will use solar propulsion technology to leave lunar orbit and visit a near-Earth asteroid.

LightSail 2 it is not using the solar sail to go to faraway places, but simply to keep itself in orbit above the Earth. The spacecraft is currently in orbit at an altitude of 687 kilometers, where the planet's residual atmosphere causes friction. This friction would under normal circumstances slow the satellite down and bring it back to Earth, but the power of the sail compensates for it. The spacecraft initially managed to lift its orbit using only the solar sail. Now, it is slowly losing its battle with the atmosphere, but this process is happening much slower than it would without the glider.

During its mission, LightSail 2 captured some amazing images of its home planet using its two fisheye cameras, including snapshots of tropical storm Mirinae, which approached the coast of Japan during the Tokyo Olympics in August of this year. The purpose of these fish-eye cameras is to primarily monitor the state of the solar sail. Experts have already noticed some signs that the glider may be suffering from wear and tear. Company calculations predict that the spacecraft should remain in the atmosphere for at least another year.

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