Bill Nye’s LightSail Spacecraft Stranded In Orbit

The LightSail, a tiny solar-sailing cube satellite, has gone silent in orbit, stranded by a glitch that has frozen the spacecraft’s software.

The satellite was built by the Planetary Society in an effort to test solar sail technology, and it was carried into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket, which also launched the Air Force’s secretive X-37B spacecraft, as the Inquisitr previously reported. The launch took place on May 20, but just two days later, the LightSail stopped sending data back from orbit. According to a mission update published Tuesday by the Planetary Society’s Jason Davis, the LightSail is now unresponsive.

“LightSail is likely now frozen, not unlike the way a desktop computer suddenly stops responding,” he observed.

The spacecraft’s problem, according to NBC News, lies in the software that drives its main avionics board. LightSail was designed to return telemetry data from orbit every 15 seconds, sending a “packet” of information back to Earth. The software aboard LightSail concurrently saves related information to an onboard file, and as that file grows, it becomes problematic, according to Davis.

“When it reaches 32 megabytes — roughly the size of 10 compressed music files — it can crash the flight system. The manufacturer of the avionics board corrected this glitch in later software revisions. But alas, LightSail’s software version doesn’t include the update.”

Engineers assert that the only option is to reboot LightSail, yet since the spacecraft hasn’t been responding for a week, they are forced to wait for it to reboot on its own. This can happen if a charged particle from Deep Space strikes the LightSail in just the right way, according to the CBC. Such a particle strike is common enough that spacecraft of similar size often reboot within their first few weeks in orbit.

The LightSail was expected to unfurl its solar sails in June, yet due to the current software issues, the Planetary Society, which is headed by CEO Bill Nye, intends to manually deploy the solar sail as soon as possible following the reboot.

Though it remains stranded for the moment, LightSail is able to stay in orbit for six months, despite the fact that it isn’t at a high enough altitude to escape atmospheric drag.

[Image: Planetary Society via CBC]