This image was taken by the LightSail 2 spacecraft on June 11, 2022, which shows Madagascar and part of Mozambique. picture: Planetary Society
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Lightsail 2 ends 3-year solar sailing mission, burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere

After three years in space, the shoebox-sized spacecraft called “LightSail 2” was destroyed in a violent explosion.

Following a catastrophic reentry, the LightSail 2 mission of the Planetary Society has come to an end after having completed more than three years’ worth of orbits around the Earth.

The satellite served as an essential demonstration of technology for the concept of solar sailing, which one day may be used to drive spacecraft to other stars.

LightSail 2 was placed into an initial orbit at an altitude of around 720 kilometers after being propelled into space by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in June of 2019. (450 miles).

At that altitude, the Earth’s atmosphere is still dense enough to generate drag, which, over time, would gradually bring the spaceship closer to the surface of the planet.

However, here is where the particular capacity of the tenacious small satellite came into play.

LightSail 2 has unfurled a large reflective sheet, known as a solar sail, which is about the size of a boxing ring despite the fact that it is only the size of a shoebox.

It is hypothesized that rays from the sun would impact this sail, which will then create very small amounts of propulsion, so enabling the spacecraft to alter its orbit.

Solar Sailboat
The Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea captured by Lightsail 2. (Image credit: The Planetary Society)

And LightSail 2 did an excellent job of illustrating this principle. The spacecraft traveled around 8 million kilometers (five million miles) and performed over 18,000 orbits in the course of three and a half years while continually modifying its orbit in order to keep itself afloat.

However, there is an end to everything, and on November 17, the tug-of-war between gravity and drag was eventually conquered by gravity, which brought the spaceship safely back to Earth.

According to Bruce Betts, the manager of the LightSail program, “During its extended mission, LightSail 2 continued to teach us more about solar sailing and reached its most successful solar sailing.

However, this was followed by a rise in air drag in part due to rising solar activity.” “The spacecraft has been destroyed, but we will continue to share our findings and conduct studies of the data.”

The data collected by LightSail 2 will be used to influence future solar sailing missions, such as the Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout, which launched on the same day as LightSail 2 completed its mission for the final time.

NEA Scout was launched into orbit on November 16 as part of NASA’s Artemis I mission to the Moon. It is scheduled to meet with the asteroid 2020 GE and take photos of it from a close range.

It will arrive at its destination using a solar sail that is 86 square meters (926 square feet) in size, which is more than 2.5 times bigger than the one used by LightSail 2.

In the longer future, it is believed that the combination of light sails and strong lasers might assist humans in traveling to distant star systems in as little as twenty years.

Source: NewAtlas

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Written by Alex Bruno

Freelance space writer Alex Bruno specializes in covering China's quickly expanding space industry. In 2021, he started writing for SpaceXMania. He also contributes to publications including SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, and New Scientist. When Alex was a small child, he first experienced the space bug after seeing Voyager photographs of alien planets in our solar system. When not in space, Alex likes to go trail jogging in the Finnish countryside.

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