Though we tend to think of private spaceflight as being in the SpaceX league, it also includes many smaller-scale efforts. For example, the non-profit Planetary Society had announced that its LightSail spacecraft will make its first test flight in May and it did.
The LightSail consists of a CubeSat about the size of a loaf of bread, which was designed by Stellar Exploration in San Luis Obispo, California. Set around its rectangular electronics package, its propulsion system is a square of reflexive mylar plastic that deploys along four four-meter (13-ft) booms. Once deployed the plastic will catch the pressure from sunlight to push the spacecraft along in what is called solar sailing. The term is apt because the principle is exactly the same as with nautical sailing, with the same maneuvers of tacking, luffing and running before the "wind." The hard part is coming up with a design that is light enough to be pushed by sunlight, yet can maintain its shape without collapsing.
After a successful launch on May 20, LightSail, which is about the size of a loaf of bread, ceased transmitting on May 22 due to what engineers believe is a design flaw in the avionics software that caused a file to overload itself and crash the computer. The Planetary Society gave no reason for the reboot, but it's likely that it was caused by cosmic rays striking the electronics, which often makes satellite computers restart themselves. Though it phoned home after a software patch was applied.
The Planetary Society confirmed on June 7th that its LightSail satellite had successfully deployed its Mylar solar sail, achieving the main objective of the mission after 19 days in low-Earth orbit. The CubeSat completed transmission of its first image to a ground station at Poly San Luis Obispo in California, showing the sail open and partly spread out.
“This LightSail test taught us a lot, just as we hoped it would, and so we’re ready to do some real solar sailing with LightSail’s 2016 mission,” says Bill Nye, Planetary Society CEO.
The Planetary Society's brief yet successful LightSail mission came to a fiery end on 14th June. The non-profit Society announced this after 25 days in orbit, the CubeSat designed to test a solar sail propulsion system burned up after reentering the Earth’s atmosphere somewhere over the South Atlantic.
Despite the setbacks, the satellite was able to successfully deploy its Mylar sail and send back telemetry and image confirmation, fulfilling the main mission objective. Unfortunately, the Society says that soon after this, LightSail started sending a "continuous, nonsensical signal" and failed to respond to commands. Final radio contact was on June 10 at 11:29 pm EDT, when telemetry indicated that the spacecraft was in a very slow tumble that accelerated as LightSail sank deeper into the atmosphere, spinning once every 21 seconds on the day before reentry.
A second mission is set for 2016. It will be launched to an altitude of 450 mi (720 km) as part of the payload of Virginia Tech's Prox-1 mission, where it will act as a rendezvous target for the Virginia Tech craft for two weeks before carrying out a full demonstration of the light-sail system by using the sail for actual propulsion.
As a whole, this mission is stated as to be successful one and brings in a new technolgy to deep space exploration and opening many other frontiers to access space.