The LightSail has finally deployed its solar sails after encountering glitches that if unsolved, could have scrapped the mission. LightSail was launched into space almost forty years after science fiction genius, Carl Sagan, first thought of the idea of a spacecraft that could sail by solar rays. The project is headed by the Planetary Society, which touts Bill Nye (the Science Guy) as its CEO. After encountering a software glitch that left the LightSail unresponsive and unable to send data back to earth, the ground team went into overdrive trying to solve the problem.
It turns out that the glitch was traced back to the LightSail’s solar-powered batteries. There was a unique “ping-pong” effect created by levels of sunlight that were too low in the earth’s shadow and too high in direct sunlight, creating battery instability which tripped them into “safe mode”.
Once the batteries’ level was proven to be stable and charging, the ground control team attempted to execute a command sequence to unfurl the sails, but it failed. After another try, the motor which deploys the sails got up and running.
Now that the LightSail is soaring, you may be able to spot it yourself next time it does a flyby. To see when the LightSail will be overhead, check out the Planetary Society’s Mission Control, which can tell you the best time for viewing based on your current location.
According to the Planetary Society, “Look for flyovers that occur around dawn and dusk. The best time to see any spacecraft—including LightSail—is when you are standing in Earth’s shadow but the spacecraft is still illuminated by sunlight.”