CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — An experimental solar sail is being called a success three weeks after its arrival in space.
The Planetary Society said Wednesday its test flight resulted in an almost full deployment of the sail — an estimated 90 percent to 95 percent of the 344-square feet light and shiny surface — and has set the stage for a follow-up mission next year.
The goal is to create a sail that can be propelled through space by sunlight, thus opening exploration to practically anyone, anywhere.
"Solar sailing is worth doing because it has the potential to democratize space," said the society's chief executive officer, Bill Nye, more commonly known as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Small organizations will be able to build solar sails and send spacecraft to "almost any destination in the solar system if you have time. You can get there because you never run out of fuel. The sun shines all the time."
Spacecraft using solar sails could be used to chase asteroids and comets, or observe the sun's violent storms.
"There really isn't much of a limit on what you can do in the solar system," Nye told reporters, "and this LightSail test flight is the first small step on that long journey."
The Mylar sail for the current LightSail spacecraft is bigger that many living rooms — 344 square feet when stretched flat. It was folded into a little boxy spacecraft for its May 20 launch from Cape Canaveral, hitchhiking on a secretive Air Force space plane mission.
For days, the LightSail team struggled with a series of vexing software problems with the spacecraft once it reached orbit. The sail finally opened Sunday on the third try. It wasn't until seeing a picture beamed down of the open sail, on Tuesday, that the society could declare success.
"That was quite a thrill" seeing the picture, said project manager Doug Stetson. "This has really been a roller coaster ride of emotions, a lot of sleepless nights."
With its orbit gradually declining, LightSail is expected to re-enter the atmosphere this weekend.
The society knew the flight would be short given LightSail's relatively low orbit. The main objective was to demonstrate the release and operation of the sail. Next year's spacecraft will shoot for a higher orbit and take a crack at true solar sailing.
A similar experiment by the group ended in failure 10 years ago this month when the Russian rocket failed to put the solar sail in orbit. This time, the society relied on an American Atlas V rocket.
The LightSail project was funded by members and supporters of the Pasadena, California-based Planetary Society, a nonprofit space interest group co-founded by the late Carl Sagan in 1980.
Planetary Society: http://planetarysociety.org/