Education

Spacecraft team deploys solar sail from Cal Poly mission control

Can a spacecraft orbit around the Earth using only the power of sunlight?

That’s the question The Planetary Society hopes to answer this week with the LightSail 2 project, a small citizen-funded satellite that will unfurl a solar sail to propel itself into higher orbit — and Mission Control is at Cal Poly.

Scientists and Cal Poly students will gather in an engineering lab on the San Luis Obispo campus Tuesday morning to prepare for the orbiting satellite to unfurl a Mylar sail during a ground station pass that starts at about 11:22 a.m.

If all goes right, four triangular-shaped Mylar sails will unfurl from the breadbox-sized satellite in about three minutes to form a square the size of a boxing ring. As light reflects off a sail, “it transfers momentum to the sail and pushes it,” a news release from The Planetary Society said.

Watch: Video from Mission Control at Cal Poly will be live-streamed at planetary.org/live.

It’s a crucial stage for what has already been an exciting journey.

Just weeks ago, the LightSail 2 CubeSat successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Students have worked on the project since 2010 alongside The Planetary Society, an organization founded by Carl Sagan, NASA scientist Bruce Murray and engineer Louis Friedman with a goal of promoting space exploration, according to Popular Mechanics.

The project is testing the feasibility of “flight by light,” a concept that captured Sagan’s imagination.

“Forty years ago, my professor Carl Sagan shared his dream of using solar sail spacecraft to explore the cosmos. The Planetary Society is realizing the dream,” Bill Nye said in a press statement.

The sail’s deployment sets the stage for the project’s primary mission: Altering the satellite’s circular orbit into an elliptical course that will send it to a higher altitude over Earth.

That should take about a month, because even at an altitude of 720 kilometers, the spacecraft’s sail creates atmospheric drag, according to the project’s blog.

“Unlike chemical rockets that provide short bursts of thrust, solar sails thrust continuously and can reach higher speeds over time,” a Planetary Society new release said. “Solar sailing is considered a possible means of interstellar space travel.”

To see photos taken by LightSail 2 in July, visit The Planetary Society’s blog at www.planetary.org/blogs/.

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