The LightSail – a citizen-funded project from the Planetary Society – captures the momentum of light in its ‘sails’ – large lightweight mirrored surfaces.

As light reflects off a sail, most of its force is transferred. The resulting acceleration is small, but continuous.

Unlike chemical rockets that provide short bursts of thrust, solar sails thrust continuously and can reach higher speeds over time.

New paths

Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye said the LightSail would “open new paths beyond earth, using an inexpensive, inexhaustible means of propulsion: photons, solar energy in its purest form.”

“Even better, this is a journey that is directly funded by the world’s citizens rather than by governments. LightSail is truly ‘the people’s spacecraft’.”

The sails deploy from a box the size of a loaf of bread into a surface “bigger than your living room,” says Nye.

This LightSail journey is a trial run to see whether the sails could be unfurled in space. After the successful test, the Planetary Society hopes to launch a second version in 2016 that will theoretically be able to do some solar sailing.

 Video: LightSail unfurls in space


However, the benefits of fuel-free space exploration may be limited by the huge amount of energy needed to get the LightSail into space in the first place. 

An average average space shuttle launch dumped approximately 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

While the shuttle is no longer active, the commercial company’s that filled this void – such as SpaceX, which will be launching LightSail’s 2016 flight – could result in more ozone destruction than was ever realized by CFCs, according to one space pollution expert.

Brad Allen

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