Published : Sunday, November 24, 2019 | 5:46 AM
LightSail 2, a fully functional spacecraft that The Planetary Society of Pasadena launched this year to demonstrate the power of solar sailing, has been recognized as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Best Inventions of 2019.
Launched from Cape Canaveral on June 25 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, LightSail 2 captured the imagination of people around the globe as it became the first small spacecraft in Earth orbit to be propelled entirely by sunlight, instead of fuel.
On July 23, LightSail 2 deployed its solar sail and successfully downloaded photos of the sail the next day. The spacecraft is currently sailing in Earth orbit using the power of solar wind, which is the continuous stream of energized particles – mostly protons and electrons – emanating from the Sun.
TIME praised this year’s successful LightSail 2 mission as “a critical proof of concept,” the magazine said.
“A major challenge of spaceflight is the weight of fuel, which dramatically increases costs. The LighSail 2 satellite, launched in June, may have proved how to lighten the load,” TIME said. “It’s currently flying free using only light as fuel. When photons from sunlight hit its silvery sail, they impart a small force that increases velocity without the need for an engine or thruster. On July 31, LightSail successfully accelerated enough to raise its orbit by 1.25 miles – not much, but a critical proof of concept.”
Each contender for the prestigious 100 Best Inventions of 2019 was judged based on key factors including originality, creativity, influence, ambition and effectiveness, TIME said.
The concept of solar sailing was first imagined by Johannes Kepler over 400 years ago, and later embraced by visionary scientists and engineers in the 1970s, including Planetary Society founders Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman, The Planetary Society said in a statement.
To make the project a reality, tens of thousands of space enthusiasts sent in donations to the Planetary Society, a global non-profit organization devoted to space exploration.
In 2015, The Planetary Society launched a Kickstarter campaign for the mission and raised $1.24 million with the help of 23,331 backers – the highest number of supporters for a space exploration project in Kickstarter’s history.
“This award is for our 50,000-plus supporters from around the world, who brought this mission to life because they are excited about space exploration,” Bill Nye, The Planetary Society CEO, said. “We hope LightSail 2 inspires people everywhere to want to learn more about the cosmos and our place within it.”
As the spacecraft orbits Earth, the Society’s mission team regularly receives engineering data and photographs. In celebration of TIME’s recognition, the Society released a new image from the spacecraft taken on September 28.
The team will continue solar sailing operations and plans to study the effects of atmospheric drag during the de-orbit phase of the mission later next year.
To follow the LighSail 2 mission, including its estimated current location in orbit, visit www.planetary.org/missioncontrol.