Privately Funded Solar Sail Craft Slated for Launch in 2016

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Nine years after a rocket failure destroyed its solar-sailing spacecraft, the Planetary Society is ready for another try.

The Pasadena, California-based advocacy group announced July 9 the launch dates for its LightSail-1 spacecraft — a possible test flight in 2015 (LightSail-A) and a full mission in 2016 (LightSail-B) with nearly identical hardware. Both solar sail missions operate under the LightSail-1 designation.

LightSail-B would steer in Earth’s orbit using nothing more than radiation from the sun. Made up of three miniature cubesats, it would launch in 2016 aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon Heavy rocket, which SpaceX expects to launch for the first time in 2015. The four sails will ride inside the cubesats until they are ready to be unfurled, several weeks after liftoff.

LightSail-B will be boosted to medium Earth orbit inside another spacecraft called Prox-1, a Georgia Institute of Technology project. Prox-1 will spit LightSail out and remain nearby to watch the spacecraft unfurl. 

LightSail-A, meanwhile, might hitch a ride to low Earth orbit aboard a U.S. Air Force Atlas 5 rocket in May 2015 as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program, the Planetary Society wrote on its website. While low Earth orbit has too much atmosphere for solar sailing, the flight opportunity would permit the Planetary Society to perform on-orbit system checks in preparation for the 2016 mission.

“The spacecraft will deploy its sails, capture images and communicate with the ground, giving engineers a chance to work through any problems en route to a full-fledged solar sailing flight,” said Jason Davis, the Planetary Society’s media producer. He said the pair of missions is expected to cost $4.5 million, about $4 million of which has been raised already. 

If the LightSail-1 spacecraft make it to orbit, their sails should be visible to the naked eye from Earth; they cover 32 square meters. 

LightSail-1 is a successor to the society’s Cosmos 1, which failed to reach orbit aboard Russia’s submarine-launched Volna rocket in 2005.