Stunning image shows Planetary Society craft’s solar sail unfurled against the backdrop of Earth

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Stunning new images snapped in orbit show LightSail 2’s solar sail outstretched and ready to take on the next phase of its mission.

The Planetary Society announced that the 18-foot-wide Mylar sail had successfully deployed earlier this week, following a late-June launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

It’s just one five-thousandth of an inch thick, or about the width of a human hair.

The milestone could pave the way for lower-cost spacecraft propulsion, allowing small craft to be driven by sunlight.

The Planetary Society’s crowdfunded craft consists of a CubeSat roughly the size of a loaf of bread, and a now-unfurled solar sail that stretches more than 18 feet wide.

Scientists revealed the mission’s progress minute-by-minute in a live-streamed event on Tuesday afternoon.

‘Sail deployment complete! We’re sailing on sunlight!’ the Planetary Society tweeted after confirming the feat.

Images released later in the week confirmed the sail was unfurled and doing well.

LightSail2 embodies a propulsion technique that, conceptually, dates back hundreds of years and was brought into the public eye during the 1970s by esteemed scientist and educator, Carl Sagan.

It requires no fuel, and is instead driven by photons – or particles of light – emitted by the sun.

By the craft’s design, the enormous solar sail will reflect these particles and, as their momentum transfers, thrust forward with its CubeSat in tow.

Deployment officially began at 11:47 a.m. PT (2:47 p.m. ET), when the team tweeted to say its motor was active, and it was said and done in a matter of minutes.

But, the process required all hands on deck. 

‘Sail deployment is a manual, two-step procedure initiated by the ground systems team,’ the team explained on Twitter.

‘First, the team must “arm” the sail for deployment, and then send the command to deploy the sail. If all goes well, telemetry should show motor counts increasing.’

The team confirmed deployment was compete around 11:50 a.m. PT (2.50 p.m. ET), when telemetry data showed the motor had reached its target count.

Now that the sail is open, though, it will have to prove it really can pull a small spacecraft using only the power of the sun.

‘The goal is to raise LightSail 2’s orbit by a measurable amount, showing that solar sailing is a viable means of propulsion for CubeSats,’ according to the Planetary Society. 

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