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The LightSail 2 mission is about to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere

The LightSail 2 mission is about to burn up in Earth's atmosphere

This image was taken by the LightSail 2 spacecraft on June 11, 2022, which shows Madagascar and part of Mozambique.

This image was taken by the LightSail 2 spacecraft on June 11, 2022, which shows Madagascar and part of Mozambique.
picture: Planetary Society

Over the past three years, small loaf ofGiant bread-sized spacecraft The wings were sailing on the sunshine in Low Earth Orbit. LightSail 2 Has Exceeded Life Expectancy It has proven that solar sails can indeed be used to fly Space ship. But its journey around our planet is unfortunately coming to an end, as Earth’s atmosphere pulls the spacecraft down to where it will eventually burn up. air flame.

Planetary Society LightSail 2 Launched in June 2019 open it 344 square feet (32 square meters) Solar sail after a month. Just two weeks after spreading its wings, LightSail gained 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) of altitude, making it This experiment was successful. But over the past few months, LightSail 2 has lost an ever-increasing height modified. It is now sailing at an average altitude of about 390 miles (627 km)), down from about 446 miles (718 km) at the beginning of the task, According to the Planetary Society.

The scientists behind the mission expect that LightSail 2 will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere over the next several months, but they don’t have a specific date. During re-entry, the spacecraft will move like this Soon it would create an energetic pressure wave in front of it, causing the air around it to heat up and burn LightSail in a fiery shroud.

Solar sails act on photons coming from the sun causing tiny bursts of photons Momentum it Propel the spacecraft as The photons collided with LightSail’s wings, propelling the spacecraft away from the sun. If the spacecraft were able to bypass the clouds from Earth’s atmosphere, it would likely reach very high altitudes.

During its mission, LightSail 2 has had some ups and downs (literally). orbit Sometimes lost Few meters of altitude per day And sometimes you gain a few meters. But after three years of circumnavigating the Earth, experimental device seem to experience steep drop On the rise as a result of several Factors.

This graph shows the average height of LightSail over time (shown in blue).

This graph shows the average height of LightSail over time (shown in blue).
Clarification: Planetary Society

As the spacecraft went down, the density of the atmosphere increased very rapidly, resulting in the resistance of the atmosphere. Light sail crashes into the atmosphere grains also traveled in speeds Access 20,000 mph (32000 km / h), causing the spacecraft to slow down. “Our case is more extreme than most spacecraft because the area of ​​our sail is so large compared to the mass of the spacecraft,”Planetary Society books in statement. Imagine throwing a stone compared to throwing a piece of paper. Atmospheric drag will stop paper much faster than rocks.”

Ironically, the Sun also worked against LightSail 2. When the sun is most active, As the temperature rises Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing it to expand to higher altitudes. At the beginning Mission, the Sun has been going through some downtime as part of an 11-year cycle, but our host recently star accelerate its activity due to Maximum solar period. This has Caused the atmosphere to be More intense at higher altitudes, until Reaching the spacecraft, causing LightSail 2 to be pulled down.

The third factor that led to LightSail’s demise is more human than global. Mission suffered Connection glitches due to a glitch Equipment at the ground station. During times of outage, the team was unable to send data to the spacecraft, causing it to sail Suffer, albeit a little.

Although LightSail 2 She will soon meet her fiery death, and the legacy of the Starship will live on. orbit inspired many other missions, Including NASA Scouting NEA mission to a near-Earth asteroid(scheduled to be released in August)And the NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System To test the material of the sail arm in Earth orbit ((Scheduled for release in mid 2022)And the NASA agency solar cruiser (It is scheduled to be launched in 2025). The age of the solar sail, it seems, fast approaching.

more: LightSail 2, propelled by sunlight, raises its orbit by 10,500 feet in just two weeks

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