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LightSail spacecraft snaps solar sail selfie

06/10/2015 10:53 EDT | Updated 06/10/2016 05:59 EDT
A solar-sailing spacecraft has beamed a photo of its deployed sail back to Earth, confirming that it successfully completed the main objective of its mission.

The LightSail spacecraft, a project of the non-profit Planetary Society, sent back the final parts of the photo on Tuesday afternoon, two days after deploying its solar sail.

It was promptly tweeted out by Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, who billed the new form of propulsion as "the future of space travel."

Solar sails are ultra-thin mirrored sheets designed to capture the momentum from solar energy photons. The small, continuous acceleration allows a spacecraft propelled by solar sails to reach high speeds over time without any fuel.

Another photo is expected today, and it may include a view of Earth in the background, said Jason Davis, digital editor for the Planetary Society, in a blog post Tuesday afternoon.

"Next, engineers may 'walk out' the sail booms to increase the tension on the sails, which could further flatten the wavy appearance of the Mylar," he added.

More details are expected at a news conference this afternoon.

Test declared success

LightSail's current mission, launched on May 20, is designed as a test in low-Earth orbit ahead of next year's planned flight in a higher orbit that will demonstrate "true" solar sailing. The Planetary Society has a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for that mission. 

In the meantime, the group has declared the test a success.

LightSail hasn't had an easy time in space. Just two days after launch, it lost contact with ground crews due to a software bug. After eight days of silence, the spacecraft rebooted and contact was restored. The spacecraft went silent again Friday, shortly after its solar panels were deployed, but got back in contact Saturday.

The Planetary Society tried to launch the world's first solar sail, Cosmos 1, in 2005, but the launch vehicle failed and never reached orbit.

Five years later, the first solar sails were deployed by Japan's Venus-bound IKAROS spacecraft and NASA's NanoSail-D satellite in low-Earth orbit.

NASA has two upcoming solar sail missions, one to the moon and the other to an asteroid, scheduled for 2018.

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