The solar-powered LightSail 2 spacecraft took one last look at Earth before burning up

After 18,000 trips around the world, the spacecraft ends its journey. This, however, won’t be the end of solar sailing in space.
The final image taken by the LightSail 2 spacecraft on October 24, 2022. The Planetary Society

After more than three years orbiting the planet, the LightSail 2 has made its descent back into Earth’s atmosphere, burning up in a fiery finale at some point yesterday.

“LightSail 2 is gone after more than three glorious years in the sky, blazing a trail of lift with light, and proving that we could defy gravity by tacking a sail in space,” Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society said in a press release. “The mission was funded by tens of thousands of Planetary Society members, who want to advance space technology.”

The fascinating piece of technology, launched into orbit via a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in June 2019, used a four-section solar sail of around 244 square feet to project it around the planet a total of 18,000 times in its run. That’s about five million miles for the tiny spacecraft made up of a 31-inch-tall satellite. Its orbit began around 450 miles above the planet, where the atmosphere is still thick enough to eventually create drag on the craft and pull it back down.

[Related: LightSail 2′s success could pave the way for more sun-powered spacecrafts.]

The LightSail used photons from the sun’s rays, which create momentum after they bounce off of the solar cell made from Mylar, a super shiny reflective polyester film. Using weightless energy from the sun alone, the craft managed to sail at around 16,765 mph back in 2019, but could theoretically keep speeding up under constant sunlight. According to The Pllanetary Society, in just a month of sunlight, the craft’s speed could increase over 300 miles per hour. 

Despite the demise of the actual LightSail, images from the mission can still be viewed online. The Earth-bound team behind the craft can continue to analyze data and publish their findings from the years LightSail spent circling the globe. 

The goal of LightSail was to bring about an affordable era of space research using solar sailing technology, which will live on in future missions, such as the NEA Scout and ACS3 which both utilize solar sails. 

“We have braved the harbor of Earth and found that a small craft can sail and steer,” Bruce Betts, LightSail program manager and chief scientist for The Planetary Society, said in a release. “Best wishes to those who sail similar craft into the vast ocean of space—we look forward to an exciting future of exploration, proud that we have played a role. Sail on!”