Since launching on May 20, the Planetary Society's solar sail prototype -- called LightSail and inspired by an idea Carl Sagan championed decades ago -- hasn't exactly had smooth seas.
A glitch made the tiny satellite holding the folded sail unreachable from Earth for a time. Even after communications were reestablished, it took days to get the spacecraft to do the one thing it was sent up to do -- deploy its sail, proving that a propulsion system thinner than human hair could be packed away and unfurled safely in space.
On June 7, the Planetary Society reports, the sail finally unfurled.
Mission control expected another opportunity to communicate with LightSail early on June 8, during which time engineers on the ground hoped to confirm that the deployment procedure had been completed. Once we get those updates, we may have pictures of the great unfurling as well.
We were actually meant to wait a full 28 days for this deployment. The original plan for LightSail's first test was to let it spend a month orbiting Earth, allowing teams on the ground to monitor how it fared. Unfortunately, it didn't fare all that well: After recovering from the glitch that made it incommunicado, the LightSail spacecraft had to recover from a battery malfunction. With things looking less than certain, the team chose to deploy the sail at the earliest opportunity.
Sometime during the next year or so, Nye and his colleagues will send another satellite into orbit. This one won't just unfurl a delicate mylar sail: It will use that sail to propel itself through space. Solar sails work by using the physical force of particles emitted by the sun, catching their momentum the way a ship's sail catches the wind. It's not very forceful, but it's continuous. Nye hopes the technology will allow small research vessels -- and one day perhaps larger spacecraft -- to operate more efficiently.
The Planetary Society already has more than quadrupled its $200,000 goal for the project on Kickstarter. Now that this first test's deployment has been confirmed, it seems all systems are go for LightSail's next round.