LightSail 2 spots Hurricane Laura

The CubeSat joins a fleet of missions currently observing the storm
27 August 2020
LightSail 2_Hurricane Laura
An image from LightSail 2 captured on 24 August 2020 shows Tropical Storm Laura in the lower-left, next to the colorful waters of the Bahamas and Florida, Hispaniola, and Turks and Caicos. North is approximately at top. The image has been color-adjusted and some fisheye lens distortion has been removed. Credit: The Planetary Society

In order to better keep meteorologists and disaster response experts apprised, a fleet of missions run by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are studying Hurricane Laura as it hits the Gulf Coast. A unique satellite is in the mix -- the Planetary Society's LightSail 2 has joined the orbital eyes in the sky to record the hurricane's movements.

Launched in June 2019, LightSail 2 set out to become the first spacecraft to orbit the Earth propelled by sunlight alone. The original plan for the crowdfunded solar sail was to successfully orbit Earth for one year. Still in orbit today, on 24 August, it captured an image of Hurricane Laura (then still a tropical storm) swirling across the Gulf of Mexico.

The diminutive CubeSat - a thin, silvery mylar sheet about the same size as a boxing ring, is propelled through space by photons. These particles of light have no mass, but they do have momentum. When photons strike a reflective surface, they bounce off, giving a push to what they ran into.

As the name implies, LightSail 2 is not the first attempt at solar sailing. In 2005, The Planetary Society launched the world's first solar sailing spacecraft, Cosmos 1, but the launch vehicle failed to reach orbit. Ten years later, the LightSail 1 spacecraft was launched to test its new sail deployment method in space. LightSail 1 deployed its sail successfully on 7 June 2015, and re-entered the atmosphere as planned one week later. LightSail 2 is intended to demonstrate true solar sailing.

Related SPIE content:

Solar Sailing: Take 2

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