NASA Pays for Launch of Planetary Society’s LightSail

The Planetary Society's LightSail-1 solar sailing spacecraft is scheduled to ride a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to orbit in 2016 with its parent satellite, Prox-1. (Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society)
The Planetary Society’s LightSail-1 solar sailing spacecraft is scheduled to ride a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to orbit in 2016 with its parent satellite, Prox-1. (Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society)

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — With help from NASA, a small research satellite to test technology for in-space solar propulsion launched into space Wednesday aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative.

The Atlas V sent the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane on its fourth mission, which also is carrying NASA’s Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation that will expose about 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail satellite is a technology demonstration for using solar propulsion on CubeSats, a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites. Using the momentum transferred from solar photons as they strike a large, thin, reflective sail would allow a spacecraft to accelerate continuously using only the sun’s energy. NASA is considering the use of solar sails on future exploration mission secondary payloads, and data from this mission will advance understanding of this form of propulsion.

This first LightSail mission specifically is designed to test the spacecraft’s critical systems, including the deployment sequence for the Mylar solar sail, which measures 32 square meters (344 square feet). The Planetary Society is planning a second, full solar sailing demonstration flight for 2016.

NASA selected LightSail as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides opportunities for small satellites to fly as auxiliary payloads on planned missions. It was assigned to a launch as part of as the 11th installment of the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) mission.

The upper stage of the Atlas V included the National Reconnaissance Office’s third auxiliary mission to launch CubeSats. The Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat) carried 10 CubeSats — including LightSail — from five organizations. It was made possible through agreements between NASA, the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and the National Reconnaissance Office to work together on CubeSat integration and launch opportunities.

The cube-shaped satellites measure about four inches on each side, have a volume of about one quart and weigh less than three pounds each. LightSail consists of three CubeSats bundled together. Individual CubeSat research projects may address science, exploration, technology development or education. During the next month, the LightSail team will receive data from the satellite in space. As part of its agreement with NASA, the Planetary Society will provide the agency a report on outcomes and scientific findings.

Since its inception in 2010, the CubeSat Launch Initiative has selected 110 CubeSats primarily from educational and government institutions around the United States. NASA will announce the next call for proposals in August 2015.

For more information about ELaNa, visit:

For more information about LightSail and the Planetary Society, visit:

For additional information about NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, visit:

  • Paul_Scutts

    Thomas, the Planetary Society is dedicated to the exploration of the solar system, the search for Near Earth Objects, and the search for extraterrestrial life. The society’s mission is stated as: “To empower the world’s citizens to advance space science and exploration”. It is a “not for profit” organisation, supports NASA and calls for contributions to advance it’s aims. Solar sail technology has the potential to economically move large mass around the Solar System e.g. supporting a resource extraction pipeline from the Asteroid Belt to Earth orbit. What’s your problem? Perhaps it boils down to certain personalities involved with the organisation? That I could well understand. I’m no fan of Tyson and Nye, I could take or leave. But, the Society itself, is, IMO, solid and living up to it’s charter. Regards, Paul.

  • I’m not a member so I don’t care, but the minute they start getting free rides from NASA or lobbying politicians, I care.

    This will be easy to investigate.

  • Guy Rovella

    You don’t do humor do you?

  • Paul_Scutts

    Thanks for your reply, Thomas. I understand your passion. I have an equal passion regarding the SLS funding fiasco. The funding that Congress is forcing NASA to spend on the development of the SLS and Orion, IMO, has, is and will severely limit US HSF ability, although, they are claimed to be doing exactly the opposite. Regards, Paul.

  • None that you would understand, apparently.

  • Guy Rovella

    You wound me!

  • Douglas Messier

    Agreed. Perfectly reasonable for NASA to support this type of project the CubeSat Launch Initiative. The agency is funding launches a lot of CubeSats.

    I’m pretty amazed by the discussion here. The headline was to give NASA credit for paying for the ride. There was no negative judgment attached.

  • Aerospike

    As others have pointed out, Thomas Lee Elifritz is basically complaining that the Planetary Society is the Planetary Society, because he somehow assumed because of their name, that their sole object of interest should be our own planet Earth and how to solve its problems…

    That’s a bit like complaining that Hubble isn’t doing radio astronomy or that the LHC isn’t used to prevent tsunamis…

    In other words: he has pretty much blown away any credibility he had until now.

  • Kirk

    😉 Though cents is still an order of magnitude high. Try mill.

  • windbourne

    Kirk did not say it was ridiculous. He said it was the cost of the launch, which it is.
    What % NASA paid will depend on agreements. For all we know NASA paid 100% of launch for use of the craft.

  • windbourne

    sure. Why not? You have to die someplace.

  • windbourne

    What is amazing is that it is NASA’s purpose to help cutting edge tech along and so many carp about it if it is not to their liking.
    This lightsail has so many uses for exploration around the inner solar system, and yet, some are gripping over nothing.

  • windbourne

    not just new space, but old space as well. Loads more subsidies go there than into new space.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I have absolutely zero problem with that. I was just reacting to the idea that NASA can’t pay to launch a cubesat for the Planetary Society but can lend out the wind tunnel to XCOR or VG or anybody else who can’t afford their own. If we’ve got equipment that is sitting idle, I hope we can let somebody get some good use out of it just as long as it is available when NASA needs it.