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The LightSail Satellite Successfully Deployed Its Solar Sail

After a moment of radio silence, the Planetary Society’s test mission is back on track.
Image: Planetary Society

After experiencing two setbacks since launch, the Planetary Society's tiny solar sail's voyage to space is finally back on track. The spacecraft's deployment motor woke up on Sunday afternoon, allowing it to pop out a large shiny sheet of Mylar, which lets it harness sunlight for propulsion.

The solar sail is currently on a test mission to space. After a brief hiatus, the sail deployment began at 3:47 pm EDT on Sunday off the coast of Baja California.

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"All indications are that the solar sail deployment was proceeding nominally," wrote mission manager David Spencer in an email update, according to the Planetary Society's blog post.

The Planetary Society's solar sail, which is dubbed "LightSail", is a small cubesat about the size of a breadbox. Backed by Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye, the solar sail aims to eliminate the need to lug heavy fuels into orbit by running on free energy from the Sun. The goal of the crowdfunded mission is also to democratise access to space for regular people who want to test out their own projects.

Sail has Deployed!
— Bill Nye (@BillNye) June 7, 2015

The tiny solar sail successfully launched on May 20, and sent around 140 data packets back to Earth over a two-day period. However, two days after lift off, the sail fell into a radio silence, and the test mission was paused as engineers dealt with a suspected software glitch.

With things now back on track, The Planetary Society's blog post states that "telemetry received on the ground showed motor counts climbing to the halfway point before LightSail traveled out of range. Power levels were consistent with ground-based deployment tests, and the spacecraft's cameras were on."

Next up, ground control teams at California Polytechnic State University and Georgia Tech will be transferring the images captured by the solar sail's cameras to the flight system. The Planetary Society are also encouraging amateur astronomers to join forces with two ground-based observatories attempting to image the spacecraft, and calling on radio operators to submit data, which could be helpful in working out the spacecraft's status for mission control.