Crowdfunded solar sail spacecraft moves closer to flying on light alone

The Planetary Society’s crowdfunded LightSail 2 spacecraft reported back some good news today: It’s officially orbiting on its own after being delivered to space via rocket rideshare aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy last week.

LightSail 2 “phoned home” today in the wee hours of the morning, a good sign that it’s well set up to achieve its main mission of actually unfurling its solar sail, which will propel the spacecraft forward in a planned course that will raise its orbit higher than its current point. It’ll do this using only the force generated by photons produced by sunlight actually hitting the 105-foot-square reflective Mylar sheet. Note that this is very different from solar power, which converts energy from sunlight into electricity.

Should it succeed in deploying its sail, it’ll be the first demonstration of a LightSail craft doing so (the first one was meant to merely test other systems and didn’t actually sail). But don’t expect space-based speed trials — this type of craft actually generates very little thrust, but its design could theoretically prove an efficient, effective and affordable way to operate for specific types of missions where acceleration isn’t as important as eventual top speed. Even a very light push, once multiplied by many other light pushes, can produce a lot of speed in the vacuum of space.