The Planetary Society announced that its first LightSail spacecraft will be hitching a ride on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in order to test the vehicle's critical functions. This flight will be "a precursor to a second mission slated for 2016." The project is entirely funded by private citizens. More info here.
Solar sailing works by using sunlight for propulsion. When solar photons strike LightSail's reflective Mylar® sails, their momentum is transferred to the spacecraft, gradually accelerating it through space. While the push from photons is miniscule, it is continuous and unlimited. Solar sails can eventually reach greater speeds than those obtained from chemical rockets. LightSail consists of four identical triangular sails attached to four 4-meter booms, resulting in a square solar sail when fully deployed.
The 2015 test flight will not carry the spacecraft high enough to escape Earth's atmospheric drag, and will thus not demonstrate controlled solar sailing. Once in orbit, the spacecraft will go through a checkout and testing period of about four weeks before deploying its solar sails. After the sails unfurl, LightSail will test its attitude control system and study the behavior of the sails for a few days before it is pulled back into the planet's atmosphere. Key images and data on the spacecraft's performance will be sent to ground stations at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Georgia Tech.
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