Two years after launching into Earth orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, LightSail 2 is still solar sailing and the spacecraft has completed its first year of extended operations. Despite some spacecraft anomalies and degradation, recent software modifications have enabled the spacecraft to sail often as well or better than at the beginning of the mission.
Beyond its primary mission design and in the harsh environment of space, we are fortunate that LightSail 2 is still working and at an altitude where we can continue to experiment with solar sailing. Eventually, atmospheric drag will bring the spacecraft down enough that it will experience a fiery re-entry. We can’t say for sure when that will occur, but it isn’t soon. Its average altitude, currently about 692 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, has only dropped about 25 kilometers since the start of the mission in 2019. Below-average Sun activity has kept Earth’s upper atmosphere calm, creating less drag on the sail. The spacecraft also offsets some of the drag with the thrust gained by solar sailing.
We plan to operate LightSail 2 as long as possible in order to learn more about solar sailing, solar sail spacecraft operations, and evolution of the sail and booms over time. We also want to continue raising awareness of solar sailing by sharing the excitement of the mission with the public, working directly with upcoming NASA solar sail missions, and documenting our results to ensure the strongest possible legacy for the LightSail program which has been funded entirely by Planetary Society members and donors.