LightSail 2 mission ready to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere

The LightSail 2 spacecraft captured this image on June 11, 2022, showing Madagascar and part of Mozambique.

The LightSail 2 spacecraft captured this image on June 11, 2022, showing Madagascar and part of Mozambique.
picture: The Planetary Society

A tiny bit in the last three years Loaf-bread-sized spaceship with gigantic Wings sails in on sunbeams Low Earth Orbit. LightSail 2 has far exceeded its life expectancy and proved that shade sails can actually be used to fly spacecraft. But its journey around our planet is sadly coming to an end as Earth’s atmosphere pulls the spacecraft down, where it will eventually burn up atmospheric flames.

Those of the Planetary Society light sail 2 Started June 2019 and unfolded his 344 square feet (32 square meters) Awning a month later. Just two weeks after spreading its wings, LightSail 2 gained 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) in altitude and made this experiment a success. But for several months, LightSail 2 has been losing altitude Valuation. It now sails at an average altitude of about 390 miles (627 km).), less than about 446 miles (718 km) at the beginning of the mission, according to the Planetary Society.

The scientists behind the mission expect LightSail 2 to reenter Earth’s atmosphere in the next few months, but they don’t have an exact date. So, during reentry, the spacecraft is moving quickly that it creates an energetic blast in front of it that heats the air around it, turning LightSail into a fiery veil.

Solar sails run on photons from the sun, causing small bursts of swing that propel the spaceship; how The photons hit the wings of LightSail, pushing the spacecraft further away from the sun. If a spacecraft is able to overcome the drag of Earth’s atmosphere, it could potentially reach very high altitudes.

During its mission, LightSail 2 has experienced (literally) some ups and downs. The Orbiter sometimes lost a few meters of altitude per day and sometimes won a few meters. But after three years of sailing around the world, the experiment becomes device started to experience a steep descent in height as a result of several factors.

This chart shows the average height of LightSail over time (shown in blue).

This chart shows the average height of LightSail over time (shown in blue).
illustration: The Planetary Society

As the spacecraft descended, the atmospheric density increased very rapidly, resulting in atmospheric drag. LightSail atmospherically shattered particles how it traveled speeds reach 20,000 miles per hour (32,000km/h), causing the spaceship to slow down. “Our case is more extreme than most spacecraft because the area of ​​our sail is very large compared to the mass of the spacecraft,” tThe Planetary Society wrote in a expression. “Imagine throwing a rock compared to throwing a piece of paper. Atmospheric drag will stop the paper much quicker than the rock.”

Ironically, the sun also worked against LightSail 2. When the sun is more active it heats Earth’s Upper Atmosphere, causing it to expand to higher altitudes. At the beginning of Mission, the Sun went through some downtime as part of its 11-year cycle, but our host star recently stimulated his activity for his solar maximum time. That has caused the atmosphere to be poet at higher altitudes, even reaches the spaceship, causing LightSail 2 to be pulled down.

The third factor that led to LightSail’s demise is more human than cosmic. The mission suffered Communication failures due to erroneous Equipment at ground station. During times of the communications drop, the team was unable to send data to the spacecraft, causing it to coast suffer, albeit slightly.

Although LightSail 2 soon to meet its fiery death, the spacecraft’s legacy will live on. The Orbiter has inspired several other missions, including NASA’s NEA Scout Mission to a near-Earth asteroid (planned start in August), NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System to test sail boom material in Earth orbit (planned launch sometime mid-2022)and NASA’s sun cruiser (planned for a launch in 2025). The era of the solar sail, it seems is fast approaching.

More: LightSail 2, powered by sunlight, will raise its orbit by 10,500 feet in just two weeks