Experimental LightSail satellite dead in orbit

Posted on 1 Jun 2015 by Michael Cruickshank

An experimental satellite has encountered a software glitch just days after its launch, causing it to lose contact with Earth.

The LightSail satellite was the first ever spacecraft launched that utilised a solar sail for propulsion.

Solar sails enable a satellite or larger spacecraft to travel through space using energy gathered from the solar wind – the constant flow of charged particles emanating from the sun.

LightSail itself is a very small craft developed by The Planetary Society and based off the popular CubeSat design.

It launched on the 20th of May alongside the secretive military X-37B space plane, but lost contact with Earth two days later.

According to The Planetary Society, the LightSail craft was rendered inoperable by a known software glitch in its avionics software. Each time the craft communicated with Earth, a cache file would slowly built up with data, until this hit a 32MB limit, crashing the system.

Researchers who made up the craft’s ground team had worked to develop a fix for this issue, however were unable to do this before the craft went dark.

“LightSail is likely now frozen, not unlike the way a desktop computer suddenly stops responding,” said The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis.

Random chance reboot

With no way to communicate with LightSail, The Planetary Society’s one chance to resurrect the dead craft is through a total system reboot, which will clear the cached memory causing the glitch. This however raises a new problem:

“There’s nobody in outer space to push that reset button,” explains Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society.

Given this fact, the LightSail team is hoping for a random chance occurrence to help them out. Solar radiation which has long been the enemy of space-based software could trigger a reboot should a charged particle strike the craft’s electronics in the right way.

Such an occurrence is not uncommon for CubeSats, and The Planetary Society remains confident that the craft can be brought back online.

Currently, they are working with a large group of amateur astronomers from around the world, tracking the known position of the craft and waiting for the tell-tale packets of data which would indicate that it had been rebooted.