LightSail solar satellite finally rolls onto launchpad

20 May 2015

20 May marks the day when two solar-powered LightSail spacecraft will launch into space as part of a citizen-funded project, aiming to be the first of its kind in space.

The tiny satellites, or cubesats, have been in development for some time by The Planetary Society and will now finally launch into orbit where they will then release their solar sails measuring 32 square metres in their first test in space.

According to the society, the sails are incredibly thin and advanced with a thickness of just 4.5 microns and will absorb and reflect so much light that they should be visible to us here on Earth once they become operational.

The three cubesats stacked on top of one another to create LightSail will ‘hitch a ride’ aboard an Atlas V rocket, which is due to launch at 3.45pm GMT (2.45pm EDT), but for this test run, the craft will not be high enough above the Earth’s atmosphere to engage its solar sails, but it should give a good indication of how they will cope in the rigours of space.

LightSail’s Atlas V payload integration

LightSail’s Atlas V payload integration. Image via United Payload Alliance

Calling on backing from Kickstarter

To date, the entire project has cost US$5.45m and is still calling on backers for its Kickstarter page with words and encouragement from The Planetary Society’s CEO and well-known science communicator Bill Nye; they are now trying to raise as much as US$1m through the crowdfunding platform.

The next step following today’s test will be in 2016 when the team behind the LightSail will be enclosed within Prox-1, a small satellite developed by the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) to autonomously inspect other spacecraft.

This will mean both satellites will be lifted into orbit by the Falcon Heavy, a new heavy-lift rocket built by the private spaceflight company SpaceX.

The company will be live-blogging the countdown to the big launch.

LigthSail payload on Atlas V rocket, ready for launch.

LigthSail payload on Atlas V rocket, ready for launch. Image via Navid Baraty / The Planetary Society

LightSail in full view of launch crew

LightSail in full view of launch crew. Image via Navid Baraty / The Planetary Society

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic