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Sun-powered spacecraft to be launched in 2016

AFP-JIJI

A tiny spacecraft designed to sail by the power of the sun is scheduled to launch atop a SpaceX rocket in 2016, a leading U.S. space enthusiast said July 9.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail, an unmanned satellitelike craft known as a solar sail, aims to reach orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in two years, said the group’s leader Bill Nye.

The 30-cm spacecraft with its four, ultra-thin Mylar sails may then undertake a journey around the cosmos, powered only by the constant pressure exerted by sunlight.

“It is so thrilling to see this grand endeavor setting the date for its pioneering mission above our planet,” Nye said.

The project is funded by private donors and members of the Planetary Society, which describes itself as the world’s largest space group and was co-founded by famous American astronomer Carl Sagan in 1980.

Solar sails have generated excitement due to their potential to travel to other stars and galaxies, without the need for fuel.

“Closer to home, solar sails may give us access to unique orbits for vital Earth science and space weather missions,” said Jennifer Vaughn, the chief operating officer of the Planetary Society.

LightSail aims to go beyond low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station circles the Earth, into medium Earth orbit.

The solar sail will initially be stored inside another spacecraft, called Prox-1, which will eject the solar sail and then follow it and take images of it. A few weeks after it reaches orbit, the LightSail’s reflective wings will expand to 32 sq. meters, making it visible from the Earth.