SpaceX Launches First Fully Solar-Powered Spacecraft into Orbit
At the end of June, private aerospace manufacturer Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) launched its third Falcon Heavy rocket and deployed 24 satellites into orbit around earth. Tower Equity, a leading global private equity firm, owns equity in SpaceX. The company was valued at $33.3 billion prior to this launch due to massive investor interest in the satellite opportunity represented by the Falcon Heavy rockets.
Among the satellites launched on this rocket was the LightSail 2, spearheaded by The Planetary Society, which is the first “solar sailing spacecraft” powered by sunlight alone. Researchers on the project hope that the craft will help further research into solar-powered travel and possibly remove one of the biggest impediments to traveling across the galaxy: a lack of storage space for sufficient fuel in today’s spacecraft.
Lightsail 2 was funded by a Kickstarter fund hosted and promoted by Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (“the science guy”). The project, subtitled “Citizen-Funded Flight by Light,” had a delayed launch date due to SpaceX’s ongoing testing of its own Falcon Heavy rockets. The satellite is intended to “attempt to demonstrate solar sailing as a method of propulsion for small, standardized satellites known as CubeSats,” wrote Planetary Society digital editor Jason Davis. The spacecraft is designed to turn its reflective, solar sail against the sun’s rays each orbit. Davis continued, “Solar photons have no mass, but they have momentum and will give Lightsail 2 a gentle push as they bounce off the sail.”
Lightsail 1 went into orbit nearly four years ago, but the propulsion system was lacking. The original craft was “purely a deployment test,” explained Planetary Society Jennifer Vaughn. The Lightsail 2 spacecraft, which has four triangular mylar sails that meet to form a 344-square-foot sail, traveled to space in a cube satellite about the size of a loaf of bread. Once the cube, named Prox-1, separates from the SpaceX rocket, it should deploy an antenna, solar panels, booms, and the solar sail itself. Researchers on earth will be able to steer the spacecraft from earth similarly to the way a sailboat works.
The project was funded in part by a 2015 Kickstarter campaign. The cost, so far, of Lightsail 2 has been around $7 million. Nye said he believes a successful second run for the Lightsail project could be “a gamechanger.” He explained, “Maybe one day in the future, we could even sail to another star.” Nye believes the technology could be used to take cargo to Mars, explore asteroids, and reach Jupiter’s smallest moon, Europa, which scientists believe might be hospitable for some forms of life.
“How are you going to get there?” Nye asked. “Very likely, you’re going to use a solar sail.”