A small research satellite to test new technologies in space was launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mission is part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative.
The U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane is on its fourth mission and is carrying NASA’s Materials Exposure Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation that will expose about 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days.
Another new technology being tested during the flight is the Planetary Society’s LightSail satellite, which demonstrates solar propulsion on CubeSats.
CubeSats is a class of research spacecraft also known as nanosatellites. A LightSail will use the momentum transferred from striking solar photons from the sun to propel a spacecraft and allow it to accelerate continuously using only the sun’s energy. NASA is considering the use of solar sails on future exploration missions of secondary payloads. Data from this mission will advance understanding of this form of propulsion.
This particular LightSail mission will test the spacecraft’s critical systems including the deployment sequence for the Mylar solar sail, which measures 344 square feet (32 square meters). The Planetary Society is planning a second, full solar sailing demonstration flight in 2016.
The launch also included the Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat), which carried 10 CubeSats, including LightSail, from five organizations.
The cube-shaped satellites measure about 4-inches on each side, have a volume of about 1 quart and weigh less than 3 pounds each. LightSail consists of three CubeSats bundled together. During the next month, the LightSail team will receive data from the satellite in space. The Planetary Society will provide NASA with a report on outcomes and scientific findings resulting from the test.