The theory turned out to be true. The solar sail works and successfully drives the LightSail 2 probe

The LightSail 2 probe has been in orbit for about a month. However, only last week, the mission control decided to start its most important test - ie to try out the solar sail in practice. So far, this experiment can be called a full success.

On July 25, late in the evening, a sail made of 4.5 micrometres (sic!) Material was slowly developed into a total area of ​​32 square meters. Such a span was supposed to provide the satellite's propulsion by catching the speeding photons emitted by our Sun. The principle of operation here is very similar to swimming in a sailboat. Particles of light are reflected from the material, thus giving the momentum to the experimental satellite.

On Earth, however, the energy emitted by the reflecting photons is so small that solar sails do not make any sense. In a vacuum-filled space, things look a bit different.

Solar sail mounted on LightSail 2 works better than it was from computer simulations

Since last week, mission control has been trying to optimize sail settings so that it catches as much light as possible and gives the right direction to the probe. After a week of (many) trials and (few) mistakes, you can already talk about measurable success . The LightSail 2 probe, during the last four days, has increased the apogee of its orbit by about 2 kilometers. All members of the team responsible for its control from Earth agree that it is only the merit of solar propulsion.

- We are very pleased that we can announce the success of the mission in LightSail 2. We have achieved exactly what we wanted, i.e. a controlled display of solar navigation in a CubeSat type ship, based on changing the orbit using a light solar pressure. No such thing has ever been done before, "said Bruce Betts, the man in charge of the LightSail program and chief scientist of The Planetary Society .

The announcement of success does not mean that this is the end of the experiment. Scientists from the Planetary Society want to learn as much as possible about light sailing. This is, of course, to figure out the solar sail settings so that it reflects as many photons as possible, which, of course, translates into greater power of the drive itself. And now the drive is doing quite well. The computer simulations showed that LightSail 2 would be able to lift its orbit about 500 meters a day. In practice, it turned out that this value is almost twice as high and amounts to about 900 meters.

The potential of a sun sail is huge

Theoretically, a vessel powered by a sail of this kind can achieve higher velocity in a vacuum than rocket-propelled vessels. The problem is that it would take all eternity. However, scientists and engineers from the Planetary Society do not count on such a spectacular effect.

It is simply about reaching the acceptable speed with which our solar system (or even further) could move in the future with light satellites (communication, research, etc.). In the case of this type of device, huge acceleration is basically not important. Much more important is the fact that ships and satellites equipped with solar sails would not need any fuel to fly.

If we needed a bit more acceleration, after spreading the sail in such a satellite, you can always shoot it with a laser beam with high power (from lasers located on Earth) and in this way give it a kick on the momentum. This idea is taken into account by Breaktrough Initiatives - a venture of the Russian billionaire, Yuri Milner , who wants to join the pages of history as a generous patron of science. His project called Breaktrough Starshot assumes sending a fleet of miniature ship-probes, propelled by solar sails towards Alpha Centauri.

Before anyone can manage the Milner plan, Light Sail 2 has to prove that using the energy generated by the photons reflecting off the sail, you can lift the orbit of a satellite whose size would allow for commercial use. If this happens, the invention should quickly find its way to commercial applications.

Compared to traditional drives, it is simply much cheaper. All that remains is the question of what all the trash are flying in our orbit. The material with a thickness of 4.5 microns is very delicate and susceptible to mechanical damage, which in the case of missions going beyond our solar system may turn out to be a big problem. For now, however, let's enjoy this moment. In the end, we managed to find another and very cheap way to use solar energy.

The theory turned out to be true. The solar sail works and successfully drives the LightSail 2 probe


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