LightSail! Our KotW

LightSail! Our KotW

LightSail: The People’s Spacecraft

I’m Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society. Yes, the Science Guy is also the Planetary Guy. I invite you to come along on a cosmic journey with me by participating in a mission to sail a spacecraft, a tiny CubeSat no bigger than a breadbox, on beams of light. Imagine it: unlimited free energy from the Sun will provide CubeSats with propulsion and revolutionize access to space for low-cost citizen projects—projects like ours or by teams of students and faculty at universities. This means that spacecraft, especially small ones like CubeSats, won’t have to carry heavy fuels into orbit, and that the acceleration will be continuous. Even better, this is a journey that is directly funded by the world’s citizens, like you, rather than by governments. LightSail™ is truly “the people’s spacecraft.”

Our LightSail mission will be the culmination of the hopes and dreams of our visionary founders, Louis Friedman, Bruce Murray and Carl Sagan. Some of you may remember Carl famously promoting solar sailing on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show.

LightSail is a huge contribution to space science and exploration. To learn more about this amazing project, check out our dedicated website at sail.planetary.org. Through this proof-of-concept mission, we will use CubeSats to open new paths beyond Earth and, one day, potentially to other planets with an inexpensive, inexhaustible means of propulsion: photons, solar energy in its purest form. We need backers like you to join us in getting to this epic point in space exploration history. LightSail propulsion truly holds the promise—dare I say it?—to change the world!

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LightSail’s Moment in the Sun

It’s going to be a big year for LightSail—we’re headed to space! First, we will test our prototype this month and next by flying it in low-Earth orbit for about 30 days. While our Kickstarter campaign runs, you’ll be able to follow along in real-time as we validate the deployment of our sail booms in zero gravity as well as other key spacecraft characteristics. This is a huge opportunity for us to learn and apply lessons from the test program to the primary mission currently scheduled for fall 2016.

Here’s where you come in. The final bill for LightSail is projected at $5.45 million, of which we have just over $1.2 million left to raise. We’re nearly there, but our final push will be critical to getting to the launch pad next year. So we’re reaching out to the Kickstarter community for backing at this key moment. We invite you to get on board the mission and help LightSail soar. Without your support, the project can’t happen.

We don’t expect to get this all from one source at one time, but you can put us on the trajectory to launching in 2016. We are setting an ambitious Kickstarter goal of $200,000, with stretch goals that take us all the way up to the $1 million mark. These goals will take us from 1) spacecraft construction, integration and testing; 2) through orbital operations (actual solar sailing!); 3) to data collection, analysis, and publication of results; and 4) a slew of public awareness and education activities to make sure solar sailing is widely noticed and adopted.

And as we reach our stretch goals, we will unlock special digital-only rewards for all backers of $35 or more, like a video of our day-in-the-life test, an image from space, LightSail spacecraft schematics, and a copy of our symposium publication. Please be sure to share this project with your friends and fellow space-enthusiasts! 

That’s Right, There Are Rewards!

We invite you to join the LightSail mission team as a backer who supports space science and exploration. YOU can help unleash the potential of low-cost, citizen-funded exploration. When you get on board, we’ll send you some fantastic rewards such as a “square centimeter of sail,” an exclusive mission patch, LightSail t-shirt, a LightSail-gazing kit, limited edition LightSail poster, and lots, lots more including even sending your name to space on LightSail in 2016! We’ve worked with Planetary Society partners, a couple of which may be familiar to the Kickstarter community, like Chop Shop, ISS Above and Celestron to create these opportunities. All backers of $35 or more who are not already members will get a one-year individual membership in The Planetary Society—the world’s largest space advocacy organization. Note: all of our rewards will ship anywhere in the world (fees will be added at checkout), but backers are individually responsible for any local customs fees.

Here are a few samples of what’s in store for you: 

Our stunning LightSail Mission Patch, designed by our friends and partners at Chop Shop, which will also be the signature image on our t-shirt:

Or, our exclusive, limited edition LightSail commemorative poster, also designed by our friends at Chop Shop:

And here’s a great summary of what else to look for:

The launch of our own spacecraft will be a thrilling adventure for every Kickstarter backer and Planetary Society member, you included.

So, What’s Next for LightSail?

Following the test flight and with successful funding from our Kickstarter, the mission team will press forward with the final engineering and production of our primary LightSail spacecraft. The spacecraft is undergoing modifications and integration at Ecliptic Enterprises. Subsystems checks are underway, with functional testing scheduled to be complete by the end of June. Upcoming milestones for the primary spacecraft, all subject to change as the work unfolds, include:

  • May – July 2015—Prototype flight operations and analysis
  • July 2015—Test readiness review for system level testing
  • July 2015—Final subsystem and software tests
  • August 2015—Day in the Life test (a run-through of all mission-related activities for the spacecraft)
  • September 2015—Vibration and T-Vac Testing
  • October 2015—LightSail readiness and pre-ship review
  • October 2015—integrate into launch canister
  • December 2015—LightSail craft completed; ready for launch!

Details on the Mission

LightSail is a citizen-funded project that will make solar sail propulsion a reality for CubeSats and other small spacecraft!

Test Flight 

May 2015 We are flying our prototype right now, this very month! And you can follow along on by becoming a backer for our Kickstarter project, or by following us at sail.planetary.org.

Following three years of painstaking design and testing, we’re testing to see how LightSail flies. This month and next, May and June 2015, the first prototype LightSail CubeSat will hitch a ride to orbit aboard an Atlas V rocket for a shakedown cruise. This flight is sponsored by NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program which helps CubeSat operators find free rides to orbit. The Atlas V rocket’s primary payload is a classified U.S. Air Force mission called AFSPC-5 (an Air Force Space Command acronym).

We won’t fly high enough above the Earth’s atmosphere for solar sailing, due to atmospheric drag, but we’ll do critical tests of several systems over a 28+ day mission, including a zero-gravity test of our sail deployment sequence and attempt to snap pictures documenting the operation of the booms that support the sails. About one week after sail deployment, with its work finished, LightSail’s orbit will decay due to atmospheric drag, and it will burn-up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The purpose of this first flight is to “buy down risk,” as NASA might say. There are bound to be hiccups, and that’s the point—to learn and apply lessons from the prototype to the primary mission scheduled for 2016. For a detailed timeline of events during the test flight, check out Jason Davis’ blog.

Primary Mission: Flight 2016

The 2016 mission will mark the first controlled, Earth-orbiter solar sail flight and we’ll ride along with the first operational launch of SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket. LightSail will team-up with Prox-1, a small spacecraft designed by Georgia Tech to demonstrate automated rendezvous and inspection techniques.

Together, LightSail and Prox-1 will be released into an orbit with an altitude of 720 kilometers (447 miles), high enough to avoid atmospheric drag. Prox-1 will gently eject LightSail into open space, and a few days later will rendezvous with LightSail to inspect it from all angles. When LightSail unfurls its sails, Prox-1 will be nearby to capture images of the big moment.

Operations 2016: Solar Sailing 

Once in space, LightSail’s solar arrays will swing open, revealing the inside of the spacecraft. On command, four metal booms will slowly unwind, just like a tape measure, unfolding four triangular, Mylar sails. Each sail is just 4.5 microns thick—one-fourth the thickness of the typical trash bag. Together, the sails span over 32 square meters—large enough to provide real propulsion using only sunlight.

When the sails deploy, the real action will begin as the mission control team puts LightSail through its paces. As LightSail soars around Earth, its shiny sails may be visible to the naked eye. Thanks to the folks at N2YO.com, our LightSail dashboard webpage (you can see our beta-version here) will provide status and telemetry data, and we’ll organize viewing campaigns to show people where, when and how to look. Our researchers and others around the world will follow our progress as we experiment with and demonstrate this new technology. This operations phase will provide critical data to be used in the design and engineering of future solar sailing spacecraft—and a new era in space travel will be born!

Post-Mission LightSail Review

With the mission complete, it will be time to assess the performance of LightSail and to share it with NASA and private industry partners for adoption into other space exploration efforts. The LightSail team already meets regularly with NASA to compare technical notes, and the space agency will be watching with the rest of the world when LightSail’s first images are downloaded.

The team and other partners will collect data for analysis, and team members will present findings in a variety of academic and industry forums. The Planetary Society also has plans to host a LightSail Symposium to summarize and share key lessons learned and to actively promote the further adoption of this technology by NASA and other space organizations.

The Impact

LightSail represents a major leap forward in the concept and technology of solar sailing. Through this program, we’re making it possible for other groups, including NASA, to utilize this innovative propulsion technique on CubeSats and other small spacecraft—opening the door to a huge variety of low-cost missions throughout the solar system. With LightSail as the pathfinder, CubeSats propelled solely by sunlight will be able to regularly leave Earth for interplanetary destinations.

The next few steps are already within view. In 2018, the Space Launch System’s inaugural flight will send the Orion spacecraft on an uncrewed lap around the moon. Hitching a ride to lunar orbit will be two NASA-built solar sail CubeSats: Lunar Flashlight and NEA Scout. Lunar Flashlight will circle the Moon, adjusting its position via solar sailing, and using its sails to reflect sunlight into the Moon’s permanently shadowed craters for scientific observations. NEA Scout (the NEA stands for Near Earth Asteroid) will use its solar sails to spiral out of lunar orbit entirely, heading for a rendezvous with an asteroid.

LightSail in the News

Because of its revolutionary approach, LightSail has inspired a great deal of attention from the media, with over 200 stories generated since January of this year alone. Worldwide, it has appeared in outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the industry-insider SpaceNews, and CNET.com, just to name a few.

Recently LightSail made an appearance on national television during a segment by CBS Evening News.

Featured in the video was Planetary Society Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Vaughn, who spoke about LightSail’s mission to demonstrate the viability of solar sailing for small spacecraft. “We really hope to kick-start a process where others now take the technology and make it better,” she said. Also speaking about the project was Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation CEO Rex Ridenoure, who hosted CBS News during a recent tour of his company. Ecliptic is LightSail’s integrating contractor for testing and flight readiness. The spacecraft shown in Ecliptic’s clean room was actually the primary vehicle, dubbed LightSail-B, which is being prepped for our primary mission in 2016—a ride to orbit on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy next year. The LightSail prototype has actually been shipped to Cape Canaveral, Fla., where it awaits a May 20 launch aboard an Atlas V rocket.

Here’s a short list of more news stories covering LightSail in the US and around the world: The Verge, TechTimesHuffington Post, engadget, blastr, slashgear, IGN, Mirror, Adrenaline, webwereld, MOBILEGEEKS, cnBeta, ExtremeTech, Gizmodo, and NPR.

Cool LightSail Extras—Videos & Selfies

While there a lot more great videos at planetary.org/tv (check out The Planetary Society SciTech Channel in particular), check out Light Sail – Flight by Light here:

And while LightSail may be too small to carry an astronaut, it’s not too small to take YOU! Or, well ok, an image of you, to space—for free! Check out our Selfie to Space webpage here, and send your face to space!

The LightSail Team

Key members of the LightSail team inlcude:

  • Doug Stetson oversees all LightSail activities for The Planetary Society.
  • Rex Ridenoure is the CEO of Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation. Ecliptic is the spacecraft’s prime contractor and oversees all integration and testing.
  • Riki Munakata is the LightSail project manager responsible for spacecraft development, integration and testing.
  • Alex Diaz leads LightSail’s electrical and computer systems.
  • Stephanie Wong is the lead systems engineer coordinating the various spacecraft activities.
  • Barbara Plante is the president of Boreal Space and serves as LightSail’s lead software engineer.
  • Justin Foley is the LightSail team lead for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly is our primary ground station for spacecraft communications, and also provides testing and integration support.
  • David Spencer, an aerospace engineering professor at Georgia Tech, leads LightSail mission operations and is principal investigator for Prox-1, which is teamed up with LightSail for its 2016 mission.

Planetary Society Staff also pictured: Bill Nye, CEO; Jennifer Vaughn, COO; and Jason Davis, Digital Editor.

Facts About LightSail

Spacecraft (sails undeployed)

  • Size comparison: Loaf of bread
  • Type: 3-Unit CubeSat
  • Dimensions: 10 x 10 x 30 cm (4 x 4 x 12 in)
  • Weight: Less than 5 kg (11 lbs)

Sails (deployed)  

  • Size comparison: Boxing ring
  • Material: Mylar
  • Thickness: 4.5 microns (1/5000 of an inch)
  • Layout: Four triangular sails forming a square, connected with four tape-measure-like booms
  • Boom length: 4 m (13 ft)
  • LightSail width: 5.6 m (18.4 ft)
  • Total sail area: 32 sq. m (344 sq. ft)
  • Estimated Project Cost: $5.45 million
  • Funding sources: Planetary Society members, private citizens

Partner Organizations

Music for Our Kickstarter Project Video

Very special recognition goes to Planetary Society co-founder and visionary Louis Friedman who began and led the Planetary Society’s solar sailing involvement more than a decade ago. Doug Stetson, founder and principal partner of the Space Science and Exploration Consulting Group, manages the LightSail program.

Facts About The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society, the world’s largest space-interest organization, is an American-based non-government, nonprofit organization; anyone can join. It is involved in research and engineering projects related to astronomy, planetary science, exploration, public outreach, and political advocacy. Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman, it has over 40,000 members from more than one hundred countries around the world. The Society is dedicated to the exploration of the Solar System, the search for Near Earth Objects, and the search for extraterrestrial life. The society’s mission is “To empower the world’s citizens to advance space science and exploration.” To learn more, visit www.planetary.org.

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