A privately funded space project to demonstrate an innovative solar sail passed with flying colours despite a series of near-fatal technical issues, program managers said on Wednesday (10 June).
The 11lb LightSail spacecraft, tucked inside a 10x10x3cm box, hitched a ride into orbit aboard an Atlas 5 rocket carrying the US Air Force's X-37B robot space plane on 20 May.
Funded by members of The Planetary Society, a California-based space advocacy organisation, LightSail was intended to demonstrate how a tiny motor could unfurl four thin Mylar films into an area as big as a living room.
A follow-on mission planned for late next year would put a similar satellite into a higher orbit so that it could practice a space propulsion technique known as "solar sailing". The idea is to make use of the pressure of photons from the sun against a film to generate forward motion.
"So it didn't work on the first orbit. We tried it on the second orbit and it worked. And that's the way this mission has gone. The spacecraft is inertial space. I feel as though I've been on a roller coaster," said The Planetary Society member Bill Nye when it was confirmed that the sails had deployed.
LightSail overcame communications problems, software glitches and battery issues before finally unfurling its quartet of sails on Sunday (7 June). Confirmation of the deployment came via a spacecraft self-portrait.
Project managers are mulling other tests to put the spacecraft through before it succumbs to Earth's gravity and is pulled back into the atmosphere sometime this weekend.