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LightSail 2 mission declares success as it sets sail on sunlight

"For me, it's very romantic to be sailing on sunbeams," says Bill Nye.

This image shows the LightSail 2 with its sail deployed.
The Planetary Society

It's always sunny if you're a solar sailor.

The experimental LightSail 2 spacecraft has lifted its orbit using just the power of sunlight. The Planetary Society and its CEO, science celebrity Bill Nye, hosted a press conference on Wednesday to make the milestone announcement.

LightSail 2 acts a bit like a sailboat, except it's pushed by photon particles from the sun hitting the reflective surface of its large, shiny Mylar sail. LightSail 2 launched into space in June with an assist from SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket and unfurled its sail last week.

"We just raised our orbit around Earth using sunlight alone, something that's never been done before," The Planetary Society live-tweeted during the press conference as it declared "Mission success!"

LightSail 2 raised its orbital high point by about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) over the last four days. The demonstration marks the completion of the spacecraft's primary goal. 

The Planetary Society wants to show that solar sailing is a viable means of propulsion for CubeSats. CubeSats are small, low-cost satellites that can be used to explore space and conduct science in orbit. 

NASA notably sent two CubeSats along on its InSight mission to Mars in 2018, the first time this small type of spacecraft had been on a deep-space mission. Solar sailing could potentially be used to propel vehicles all the way to other solar systems.

Part of the funding for LightSail 2 came from a Kickstarter campaign led by Nye and fellow science star Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which brought in over $1.2 million.

The Planetary Society will continue to raise the spacecraft's orbit over the next month. 

LightSail 2 is destined to eventually re-enter Earth's atmosphere in about a year, but it will have made its point: Solar sailing works and it could become a key new technology in spacecraft propulsion.