For three years, a very small Loaf of-spaceship the size of a loaf of bread with gigantic wings sailed on sunbeams in low earth orbit. LightSail 2 has far exceeded its life expectancy and proven that solar sails can indeed be used to fly spatialship. But its journey around our planet is sadly coming to an end, as Earth’s atmosphere drags the spacecraft down where it will eventually burn up in atmospheric flames.
The planetary society Dinghy Sailing 2 launched in June 2019 and deployed his 344 square feet (32 square meters) solar sail a month later. Just two weeks after spreading its wings, LightSail 2 gained 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) in altitude, making this experience a success. But for a few months, LightSail 2 has been losing altitude more and more assess. It is now sailing at an average altitude of about 390 miles (627 km), down about 446 miles (718 km) at the start of the mission, according to the Planetary Society.
The scientists behind the mission expect LightSail 2 to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere within the next few months, but they don’t have an exact date. During re-entry, the spacecraft will move in a manner quickly that it will create an energetic pressure wave in front of it, causing the air around it to heat up and burn LightSail into a fiery shroud.
The solar sails work thanks to the photons of the Sun, causing small bursts of the momentum that propel the spacecraft; as photons hit the wings of LightSail, the spacecraft is pushed farther from the Sun. If a spacecraft is able to overcome the drag of Earth’s atmosphere, it could potentially reach very high altitudes.
Throughout its mission, LightSail 2 has had its ups and downs (literally). The orbiter sometimes lost a few meters of altitude difference per day and sometimes won a few meters. But after three years of sailing around the Earth, the experimental device began to discover a sharp drop at altitude following several The factors.
As the spacecraft descended, the atmospheric density increased very rapidly, resulting in atmospheric drag. LightSail crashed into the atmosphere particles as he traveled to gears reach 20,000 miles per hour (32,000 km/h), causing the spacecraft to slow down. “Our case is more extreme than most spacecraft because the surface area of our sail is very large compared to the mass of the spacecraft,” ta Planetary Society wrote in a statement. “Imagine throwing a stone versus throwing a piece of paper. Atmospheric drag will stop paper much faster than rock.
Ironically, the Sun also worked against LightSail 2. When the Sun is more active, things are getting hot Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing it to expand to higher elevations. At the start of the mission, the Sun was going through downtime as part of its 11-year cycle, but our host star recently relaunched its activity for its maximum solar period. This has created an atmosphere more dense at higher altitudes, same reaching the spaceship, dragging LightSail 2 down.
The third factor leading to LightSail’s demise is more human than cosmic. The mission suffered communication problems due to a fault ground station equipment. During periods of lost communication, the team was unable to send data to the spacecraft, causing it to navigate at suffer, albeit slightly.
Although LightSail 2 will soon meet its fiery death, the legacy of the spaceship will live on forever. The orbiter inspired several other missions, including NASA NEA Scout mission to a near-Earth asteroid (launch scheduled for August), NASA Advanced Composite Solar Sail System to test sail boom material in Earth orbit (launch planned for mid-2022)and from NASA solar cruiser (scheduled for launch in 2025). The era of the solar sail, it seems, rapidly approaching.
After: LightSail 2, driven by sunlight, raises its orbit 10,500 feet in just two weeks