Planetary Society

For the moment, things are on hold for the LightSail, the new solar sail spacecraft launched last week by Bill Nye and his Planetary Society organization. The prototype satellite, which uses energy from the Sun to propel through space, has suffered a computer malfunction while in lower Earth orbit, ceasing communication between the tiny spacecraft and Earth.

Last week, the Planetary Society successfully launched their LightSail spacecraft atop an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral. As explained by “Science Guy” Bill Nye, the non-profit’s CEO, the spacecraft consists of a CubeSat outfitted with a 344-foot2 mylar sail, capable of catching all the invisible, accelerating particles ejected from the Sun. Just like wind pushes on a boat’s sail at sea, so too does this solar wind, “pushing” the spacecraft through space.

For this mission, however, the LightSail was never meant to do any solar sailing; the idea was to see if its sails could deploy in the first place. But this deployment wasn’t scheduled to happen right away, so flight controllers have been keeping an eye on the satellite until that critical time. After it launched, LightSail consistently sent back a number of data “chirps” to Earth over a two-day period, indicating its position and other important data about the spacecraft. These chirps were expected to continue for a few weeks until the Planetary Society was ready to test out the deployment process. But over the weekend, the chirps went silent.

According to a blog on the Planetary Society’s website, it’s likely that with each additional chirp, the satellite created a file that was too big for the Linux-based software system to handle.

So scientists at the Planetary Society have put the mission on hold until they can sort through the glitch. Unfortunately, it’s likely that the LightSail spacecraft is frozen–like when your desktop stalls right before you’re about to file that really important story, and you didn’t hit save, because of course not. Flight controllers have been trying to reboot the system, by sending it commands each time the spacecraft passes by a ground control station, but no luck so far.

The team is looking into other possible ways to reboot the system, but there’s also the chance that charged particles in space may strike an electrical component of the system and zap it awake (no, seriously). If that happens, the Planetary Society won’t waste any time and will deploy the solar sail immediately, lest the software freeze again.