Stand by the launch: The world's 1st orbiting light sail

An elegant, 400-year-old means of navigating the stars takes flight.

Stand by the launch: The world's 1st orbiting light sail
Image source: Planetary Society
  • The Planetary Society is about to launch LightSail 2, a crowdfunded light sail craft.
  • LightSail 2 uses photons from the sun as fuel.
  • Space X's Falcom Heavy rocket will carry LightSail 2 aloft, 720 kilometers up.

In a 1608 letter to his friend Galileo Galilei, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler described his idea for space travel thusly:

"Provide ships or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will brave even that void."

Observing one of the 75-year transits of Earth by what would come to be known as Halley's Comet, he'd correctly intuited that the widening of that comet's tail, or coma, was produced by sunlight pushing material out and away from the main object.

Kepler seemed to immediately see the possibilities — i.e., a light sail.

Now — no later than June 24, 2019, as of this writing — the Planetary Society will be launching what they hope will be the first controlled light sail ever to enter and maintain Earth orbit. Their crowdfunded Lightsail 2 will ride aboard a Space X Falcon Heavy rocket departing from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a year-long orbit.

"This is history in the making — LightSail 2 will fundamentally advance the technology of spaceflight," says Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society.

Rising slowly

The pieces of Kepler's dream have been falling into place bit by bit since that letter to Galileo. The discovery of photons in the late 1800s by James Clerk Maxwell revealed the energetic particles in light whose momentum could be transferred to other objects.

Friedrich Zander envisioned the "tremendous mirrors of very thin sheets" propelling craft through space, and then Carl Wiley foresaw a solar sail as a shiny, reflective, parachute-like material opening in the direction of sunlight.

By 1976, Carl Sagan went on TV to show off a demonstration model of a light sail craft, enthusing about the amazing technology and its potential.

Among Sagan's students some 40 years ago was Nye, a frequent Big Think contributor. The Society was founded by Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman in 1980. In 2005, the Society launched the world's first light sail craft, the Cosmos 1, aboard a submarine-based ICBM. Unfortunately, it was lost when the ICBM failed before allowing Cosmos 1 a chance to fly on its own.

About the Planetary Society

The Planetary Society is the world's largest non-profit space organization, crowdfunded by over 50,000 members from over 100 countries, and supported by hundreds of volunteers. The Society was founded as outlet for the general public's interest in space, a level of interest not always reflected in governmental budgets. In addition to mounting projects such as the LightSail craft, the Society serves as an educational connection between the scientific community and the general public, advocates for robust governmental funding of space programs, and provides anyone an opportunity to get involved in some real space science.

The Society’s Lightsail craft

At the center of each frankly beautiful LightSail craft is a cubesat. While we tend to think of satellites as large, bus-sized objects, they can be much smaller for simpler missions. The cubesat for the upcoming LightSail 2, for example, is about the size of a loaf of bread.

At launch, the cubesat and sails are encased in four solar panels. Once in orbit, the panels swing up into operational position, exposing the cubesat and stored sails.

The sails themselves are four shiny Mylar sheets 4.5 microns thick — that's thinner than a human hair. They're next pulled outward by four cobalt-alloy booms that extend like tape measures. The process takes about three minutes. When deployed, the triangular sails together form a square that's just 32 square meters, about the size of a boxing ring.

The primary force to be overcome by LightSail craft is atmospheric drag, its collision with gas particles in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Think of it as friction that causes a satellite to slow and thus drop from orbit. In order for a craft to catch enough photon "propellant" — and to be high enough to get away from the upper atmosphere, its orbit needs to be above about 700 kilometers.

The Society has built two LightSail craft.

Image source: Planetary Society

LightSail 1

Around 2014, NASA offered the Society a free ride aboard an Atlas V rocket as part of the agency's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. Even though the Lightsail craft would be placed into orbit below the necessary 700-kilometer height, the Society decided to use one of their LightSails to test the mechanics of the sail deployment system.

Dubbed "LightSail 1," the sails successfully unfurled, as this selfie taken by LightSail 1 attests.

Image source: Planetary Society

And now LightSail 2

The second craft, now known and "LightSail 2," was slightly modified — particularly its software — according to insights gleaned during the first mission. It's scheduled as of this writing to go up from Kennedy Space Center in Florida later this month aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy as part of the U.S. Air Force's STP-2 mission from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This time, LightSail 2 will be carried within another, slightly larger satellite, Prox-1, developed by students at Georgia Tech. The Prox-1 will be placed into orbit around 720 meters up, and a week later will launch LightSail 2.

After a few days of diagnostics, LightSail 2 will open up its solar arrays, and then a day later, unfurl its sails. Over the next month, it will continually re-position its sails relative to the sun to raise its orbit — this is the main part of the mission, the actual solar sailing.

Mission complete, the craft will orbit for about a year before drag takes its toll, and LightSail 2 burns up plummeting down through the atmosphere. During this year, its position will be tracked via ground-based laser ranging, and it may be visible to the naked eye. The Society will offers an online dashboard that can tell you where and when to look up to se this most elegant spacecraft.

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
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Why so gassy? Mysterious methane detected on Saturn’s moon

Scientists do not know what is causing the overabundance of the gas.

An impression of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through a water plume on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • A new study looked to understand the source of methane on Saturn's moon Enceladus.
  • The scientists used computer models with data from the Cassini spacecraft.
  • The explanation could lie in alien organisms or non-biological processes.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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