Science

A spacecraft with a solar sail is about to fall through the Earth’s atmosphere

A spacecraft with a solar sail is about to fall through the Earth’s atmosphere

LightSail 2 rises above the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea.

LightSail 2 rises above the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea.
Image: The Planetary Society

The tiny spacecraft is about to sail to its doom, burning up as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere for the end of its mission.

Planetary Society LightSail 2 was withdrawn due to the pull of Earth’s atmosphere and is expected to re-enter the atmosphere in the next few days, the organization announced At Monday. When this happens, the craft will burn upbringing his three-and-a-half-year journey around the Earth to a fiery end.

“We always knew this would be the final fate of the spacecraft,” the Planetary Society wrote. “Despite the sadness of seeing it go, all those who worked on this project and the 50,000 individual donors who fully funded the LightSail program should consider this a proud moment.”

LightSail 2 launched in June 2019, deploying its 344-square-foot (32-square-meter) solar sail a month after arriving in orbit. The purpose of the mission was to test solar sailing as a means of spacecraft travel.

Solar sails run on photons from the Sun, causing small bursts of pulses that propel the spacecraft. As the photons hit the LightSail’s wings, the craft was pushed further away from the Sun, reaching higher altitudes. Just two weeks after spreading its wings, LightSail 2 gained 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) of altitude, making this experiment a success.

The mission has even far exceeded its initial one year timeline, and has been orbiting Earth for 3.5 years, completing 18,000 orbits, and covering 5 million miles (8 million kilometers). But for the past few months, LightSail 2 began to lose altitude at an increasing rate.

The spacecraft fell victim to atmospheric drag, which slowed LightSail 2 as it smashed into atmospheric particles during its orbit. The sun also played a role in LightSail 2’s disappearance, heating Earth’s upper atmosphere and causing it to become denser, slowing the craft.

The mission also suffered from communication problems due to malfunctioning equipment on the ground station. Over timeDue to a communication breakdown, the team was unable to send data to the spacecraft, causing its navigation to suffer a bit.

After sinking lower through Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will eventually re-enter the atmosphere. During reentry, LightSail 2 will travel so fast that it will create an energy pressure wave in front of it, causing the air around it to heat up and turn the spacecraft into a disintegrating fireball.

LightSail 2 may be coming to an end, but the experiment has already inspired a new generation of spacecraft. Those spacecraft include NASA’s NEA Scout mission to a near-Earth asteroid (planned for launch in August), NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System test material for a glider in Earth orbit (planned for launch sometime in mid-2022), and NASA’s Solar Cruiser (planned for launch in 2025).

We’ll be keeping an eye out for LightSail’s fiery entry, bidding farewell to the longtime solar sailor.

More: NASA returns inflatable heat shield from Pacific Ocean after orbital test



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