The satellite was developed by the Planetary Society, a space research-and-education nonprofit group whose chief executive is the TV personality popularly known as Bill Nye the Science Guy.
The technology promises a virtually inexhaustible source of space propulsion as a substitute for finite supplies of rocket fuels.
“We are thrilled to declare mission success for LightSail 2,” program manager Bruce Betts said last week on a call convened with reporters to reveal that the spacecraft had raised its own orbit by one mile, sailing under the pressure of light beams from the sun.
Flight by light, or “sailing on sunbeams,” as Nye said, could best be used for missions carrying cargo in space or on small satellites with enough room for deploying larger, and thus more powerful, solar sails.
Other applications include monitoring solar radiation that interferes with Earthbound communication networks.
The solar sail technology could also reduce the need for expensive, cumbersome rocket propellants and slash the cost of navigating small satellites in space.
“We strongly feel that missions like LightSail 2 will democratize space, enable more people, more organizations around the world to send spacecraft to exciting and remarkable destinations in the solar system that will lead us to answer that deep question: ‘Where did we all come from?’ ” Nye said.
The LightSail project kicked off in the 1990s, but its first planned prototype, Cosmos 1, was destroyed during a faulty launch on a Russian rocket taking off from a submarine in 2005.
The society’s next prototype, LightSail 1, got into space in 2015, but technical problems kept it from climbing high enough to be steered by sunlight.
LightSail 2 became the latest spacecraft to demonstrate space-bound solar sailing after Japan’s experimental IKAROS spacecraft in 2010.
The LightSail project grew from an idea imagined by the society’s co-founders — executive director Louis Friedman and late astronomer and author Carl Sagan — to send a solar sail craft to rendezvous with Halley’s comet in the 1970s.