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Planetary Society's LightSail has gone silent

"Since we can’t send anyone into space to reboot LightSail, we may have to wait for the spacecraft to reboot on its own," said Jason Davis, digital editor for the Planetary Society.

By
Brooks Hays
An illustration shows Planetary Society’s LightSail solar sailing spacecraft. Photo by Josh Spradling/The Planetary Society
An illustration shows Planetary Society’s LightSail solar sailing spacecraft. Photo by Josh Spradling/The Planetary Society

WASHINGTON, May 27 (UPI) -- The scientists managing the Planetary Society's LightSail are holding their breath as they wait for their experimental Cubesat to come back to life. A software glitch caused the small satellite to freeze up last week, and so far, attempts to reboot the device have failed.

LightSail is a small satellite that was launched last week in an effort to demonstrate the potential of solar sail-powered space travel. The toaster oven-sized craft is outfitted with a tightly furled sail made of a super-light metallised film called Mylar. If deployed, the sail will cover over 322 square feet, capturing and harnessing the energy of solar particles.

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But right now, the sail's deployment is in doubt.

The satellite's software crashed as a result of an only recently discovered glitch. LightSail was programmed to beam back a data-packed spreadsheet-like file every 15 seconds. But with each successive transmission, the file grows. Ultimately, the file grew too big for the operating system to handle, causing the software to crash.

Now, the system needs a reboot. Engineers have beamed up the signal for a reboot, but the frozen Cubesat isn't responding. As it passes over ground beacons, scientists will continue to issue reboot signals, but a manual reboot is likely the only option.

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Obviously, no one is flying into low Earth orbit to flip the CubeSat's power switch. But there is another possibility.

"Since we can't send anyone into space to reboot LightSail, we may have to wait for the spacecraft to reboot on its own," Jason Davis, the digital editor for The Planetary Society, explained in a recent update. "Spacecraft are susceptible to charged particles zipping through deep space, many of which get trapped inside Earth's magnetic field. If one of these particles strikes an electronics component in just the right way, it can cause a reboot."

While it sounds like a miracle is necessary, researchers suggest this random reboot is actually rather common, and that many CubeSats experience a particle-induced reboot within the first three weeks.

The original plan was to have LightSail to deploy its sails 28 days after separating from the United Launch Alliance Atlas V 501 rocket that blasted-off on Wednesday, May 20. A three-week particle-induced reboot would be just in time to stick with the original plans.

Once the sails are deployed, atmospheric drag will pull CubeSat out of orbit and back toward Earth. But as it is, the satellite will remain safely in orbit for at least another six months -- plenty of time for additional troubleshooting.

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