Successful Solar Sailing

The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 spacecraft launched into orbit on June 25, 2019 and deployed its 32-square meter sails almost a month later on July 23. In the time since sail deployment, it raised its orbit some seven kilometers. Here we see a great shot of the LightSail 2 over Australia.

LightSail 2 image courtesy The Planetary Society

In 1619, astronomer Johannes Kepler noticed that comet tails always point away from the sun and realized that some solar force must produce that effect. Two centuries later, in 1862, James Clerk Maxwell suggested that light has momentum and it was finally demonstrated in 1900. The goal of the LightSail 2 mission was to show that momentum from light could propel a spacecraft. The process of solar sailing is not unlike sailing on the water, only in space, gravity acts like water currents while light acts like wind. As with a sail at sea, the sails must be turned in flight to take the best advantage of the “wind” while the ship moves on the “current.” LightSail 2 accomplishes this via internal reaction wheels. The gif below shows how the sail is turned to take the best advantage of sunlight and raise its orbit.

Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

The following graph shows the elevation of LightSail2 over the course of the mission. The apogee is the highest point in orbit, the perigee is the lowest point. At LightSail2’s elevation, there are two forces working on the sail besides gravity. The first is light pressure from the sun. The other is atmospheric drag from the Earth. Even though LightSail 2 is in a relatively high orbit, it’s still in the most tenuous parts of the upper atmosphere. The upshot is that the apogee increases because of light pressure, but the perigee decreases because of atmospheric drag. That noted, LightSail 2 has accomplished the mission it set out to do, demonstrate that light can propel a spacecraft.

Image from the LightSail Mission Control Page supported by the Planetary Society

You can keep up to date with the LightSail mission and visit their mission control page by going to http://www.planetary.org/explore/projects/lightsail-solar-sailing/#the-lightsail-2-mission.

It’s worth noting this is a technology in its infancy. That said, with the lessons learned from this mission, there’s promise that solar sails could be used for small unmanned probes in the not-too-distant future, or perhaps they could be used to deflect dangerous asteroids, especially if caught early enough that they only need a small nudge.

In the long run, with much more development and technical innovation, I would like to think solar sails could be used to propel humans across the solar system as I imagine in my novel The Solar Sea. In a little under a week, on Friday October 11, Lynn Moorer will interview me about the novel on her radio show from 12:30-1:00 pm mountain daylight time. If you’re in Las Cruces, you can tune in to 101.5 FM on your radio dial. If you aren’t in Las Cruces, or just don’t listen to shows on the radio, you can stream the show at  https://www.lccommunityradio.org/stream.html. It looks like KTAL Community Radio is building up their archive of past shows, so I’m hoping I can share these interviews with you soon. If you want to read the book before the interview, you can find all the places it’s available by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html.

LightSail 2 Launch

On Monday, The Planetary Society’s experimental solar sail, LightSail 2 is scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. I’m a member of the society and one of this mission’s Kickstarter backers, so I’m really excited to see this mission getting underway.

Artist’s Concept of LightSail above the Earth, courtesy The Planetary Society

Currently, LightSail 2 is tucked into a package about the size of a loaf of bread called a CubeSat and this CubeSat sits inside a suitcase sized satellite called Prox-1. Prox-1 will be deployed from the SpaceX rocket at an altitude of 720 kilometers, about an hour and twenty minutes after launch. About a week after launch, Prox-1 will open a hatch and the CubeSat will be ejected. At this point, onboard computers will boot up and ground control will start conducting tests. Presuming all goes well, about five days later, solar panels will be deployed and a day after that, the 32-square meter solar sail will deploy.

In solar sail theory, gravity is like the water currents that carry an earth sailboat. Photons from the sun are like the wind. The goal of LightSail 2 will be to show that the sail can orbit the Earth in such away that light pressure can carry it into a higher orbit. To do this, it needs to have the reflective sail facing the sun when being pushed away. Then it needs to turn its reflective surface away when gravity carries it toward the sun. This means that sunlight will give it a push every time the craft goes around the Earth.

As it turns out, the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA has already demonstrated that sunlight can cause a light sail to accelerate. In 2010, they launched a probe toward Venus. Piggybacked on that mission was a solar sail called Ikaros. With no other source of propulsion than sunlight, Japanese scientists saw Ikaros accelerate. The photo above this paragraph shows Ikaros in flight.

I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of solar sails ever since I first read about them in an early edition of The Planetary Society’s newsletter, The Planetary Report. In high school, I came up with the idea for a novel called The Solar Sea. I wrote a few chapters and then set it aside in favor of other projects. I finally returned to the idea almost twenty years later, in 2007. I defined the characters, determined the mystery they were solving, and wrote the book. It tells the story of humanity’s first voyage through the solar system aboard a solar sail spacecraft. In the novel, the astronauts visit Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. At each stop, they learn more clues to the nature of life in the galaxy. The story expresses my love of astronomy, space exploration, and the solar system. If you’re as fascinated as I am about traveling on a space ship powered only by sunlight, I invite you to take a journey through The Solar Sea.

Exploring Space

Today, I’m at TusCon, in Tucson, Arizona where I’m anxiously awaiting the world premier of the film Revenge of Zoe, in which I have a small part. If you’re in Tucson, please drop by the convention and say hello. You can learn more about the event at: http://www.tusconscificon.com

A little over a week ago, I received an email from Bill Nye the Science Guy in his role as CEO of the Planetary Society, an organization I proudly support. The email encouraged members to take a photo with a Planetary Society T-shirt or with a sign included in the email. I was at work at Kitt Peak and I used my laptop to take this selfie which I then tweeted:

I first joined the Planetary Society in 1983, when the organization was only three-years old. It was founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman who recognized a tremendous public interest in space. This was about three years after Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking television series Cosmos and the Voyager flyby of Saturn.

The Planetary Society’s newsletter, The Planetary Report, became a great source of information about what was happening in solar system exploration. It helped reinforce my interest in astronomy as I was deciding what kind of career I wanted to pursue. One article I remember in particular talked about the possibility of solar sails. I have a vivid memory of a painting of a heliogyro, a type of solar sail that was not only pushed by sunlight, but spun, so that the centrifugal force could provide simulated gravity for the crew. This sparked my imagination and I started writing a novel called The Solar Sea.

I started my college career in 1984. I didn’t have time to continue my novel at the time, so it waned. Also, on a college student’s budget, I let my membership in the Planetary Society lapse. After college, I did make a couple of attempts to restart the novel, but was never happy with the direction it was going. It wasn’t until 2007 that my publisher challenged me to try my hand at the National Novel Writing Month that I finally sat down and wrote the book.

It’s probably a good thing that I waited to write the novel. In the 24 years from 1983 until 2007, I learned quite a bit more about the solar system. I also learned a lot more about plot and character. I had long ago thrown away the original draft of the novel and wrote the new version from scratch. By that point, the novel couldn’t wait to get out onto the page. I had no problem completing the NaNoWriMo challenge. I spent December and January after NaNoWriMo finishing the novel. My publisher loved it enough to take it and the first edition appeared soon after. The second edition of The Solar Sea was released earlier this year and you can pick it up at: https://www.amazon.com/Solar-Sea-David-Lee-Summers/dp/1885093845/.

I’m sorry to say the Planetary Society itself fell off my radar until 2015. Fortunately, I became aware of a Kickstarter they had started to fund a solar sail experiment. I contributed to Kickstarter and rejoined the Society. I’m glad I did and proud to be part of a group that works to keep space exploration alive and well. The Lightsail 2 craft that was funded by the Kickstarter is now built and installed in a Cubesat awaiting launch. At this point, it’s expected Lightsail 2 will launch in early 2019. You can learn more about the Planetary Society and all of its initiatives, including the development of solar sails by visiting: http://www.planetary.org.

By the way, that amazing painting I mentioned of a real heliogyro solar sail that inspired my dreams of writing a novel is on their website. You can find it at: http://www.planetary.org/explore/projects/lightsail-solar-sailing/story-of-lightsail-part-1.html. The essay also gives you a great overview of the history and science of solar sailing.

Pretty Planets All in a Row

This is a great time to view planets in the night sky. Four of the five naked-eye planets are visible right now and the fifth will be reappearing around the middle of the month. The night starts with Venus in the west, setting about two hours after sunset. It’s followed by Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Around August 20, Mercury should be visible in the eastern sky just before sunrise. What’s more, Mars is near opposition, its closest approach to the Earth. In fact, it’s the closest Mars has been to the Earth since 2003 and it’ll be 17 years before Mars is this close again.

Although I operate two large telescopes for the National Observatory, I don’t get many opportunities to look at just anything I’d like. Most of the time, if I want to look at planets, I need to do so with my old reliable 8-inch Celestron telescope in my backyard. Fortunately, because this planetary show is happening in the summer and in the early evening, it’s actually pretty comfortable to sit outside with the telescope. Also, ever since my wife bought me an Orion Starshoot camera, I’m able to share my views with you.

It’s monsoon season here in New Mexico, so that often means clouds in the evening. I missed getting any views of Venus, but I did manage to get images of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This is especially fun, because they are also the planets the crew of the Solar Sail Aristarchus visits in my novel The Solar Sea. Each of the planet pictures below is shown at the same scale, so you get a sense for how big they appear relative to each other in my telescope’s eyepiece.

Mars is the planet furthest in the east and the last of the three I observed. It was a little disappointing in that I didn’t see a lot of surface features. You can see one of the polar caps and some contrast between dark and light areas. Some of this is no doubt due to a planet-wide dust storm which has been engulfing the planet for the last month. I gather that dust storm is finally beginning to die down, so there’s a chance we’ll get better views later in the month while Mars is still close. In a way, this was kind of cool because one of the dangers the crew of the Aristarchus faced in The Solar Sea was a dust storm, albeit a somewhat more localized one than the planet is currently experiencing.

Jupiter was quite lovely and helped to demonstrate that the seeing—the atmospheric stability—wasn’t the reason Mars was somewhat washed out. The very best view of Jupiter I’ve had is through the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. It’s one of the few telescopes of that class with an eyepiece adapter, so I have had occasion to actually go out in the dome and look at objects through the telescope. This is probably about the clearest I’ve seen the bands of Jupiter through my backyard telescope and I was pleased to see the great red spot. In The Solar Sea, the crew of the Aristarchus makes a point of flying over the red spot. It’s the largest, longest lasting storm in the solar system. If I went to Jupiter, I’d have to get close, though I wouldn’t want to be in it!

Of course, the real star of the show, as it often is, was Saturn. This is by far the best photograph I’ve ever taken of Saturn. I was pleased to capture Cassini’s Division in the rings along with a band on the planet’s surface. The only time I’ve ever seen Saturn better was when I had the opportunity to look through the 24-inch telescope at Lowell Observatory a couple of years ago. As it turns out, Saturn is the object of the quest in The Solar Sea. Thomas Quinn, who designs and builds the Aristarchus, discovers powerful particles near Saturn that appear to be able to travel through time. It turns out there’s more to these particles than meets the eye!

The Solar Sea is on my mind not just because of these pretty planets all in a row. It turns out that as of last week, copies are now for sale at the Kitt Peak National Observatory visitor center, alongside the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. Be sure to look for a copy next time you visit. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a visit to Kitt Peak to pick up a copy of The Solar Sea, you can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale 2018 – Science Fiction Spotlight

This month, the e-book retailer Smashwords is running their annual Summer/Winter sale, which runs from July 1 through July 31. Why summer/winter? That’s because it’s summer here in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere! All of Hadrosaur Productions’ titles published at Smashwords will be on sale for 50% off their retail price. All you have to do is enter the code SSW50 at checkout. Smashwords presents their ebooks in a variety of formats including mobi (which work on Kindles), epub (which work on Nooks), and PDF (which work on just about anything). For today’s post, I’ll be focusing on Hadrosaur’s science fiction titles at Smashwords. Check back next Saturday to learn about our fantasy titles and pick up a free bonus!


A Kepler’s Dozen

A Kepler's Dozen A Kepler’s Dozen presents thirteen action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. I edited this anthology along with Steve B. Howell, project scientist for the Kepler mission. Whether on a prison colony, in a fast escape from the authorities, or encircling a binary star, these exoplanet stories will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets.

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/325583


Kepler’s Cowboys

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered thousands of new planets.
Visiting, much less settling, those worlds will provide innumerable challenges.
The men and women who make the journey will be those who don’t fear the odds.
They’ll be Kepler’s Cowboys.

Saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. Meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. Fight for justice in a lawless frontier. Go on a quest for a few dollars more. David Lee Summers, author of the popular Clockwork Legion novels, and Steve B. Howell, head of the Space Sciences and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center, have edited this exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology of fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, L.J. Bonham, and many more!

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/698694


The Solar Sea

Whales around the world changed their songs the day scientists announced the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/805692


Sugar Time

Sugar Time

Her name is Sugar. Sugar Sweet. But never EVER call her “Sweetie.”

When Sugar’s Uncle Max falls ill and his collaborators disappear, she investigates the old Victorian mansion where he conducted his research. She soon finds the collaborators—or what’s left of them—along with an angry Neanderthal. She also finds her uncle’s research project, a working time machine. Sugar must act quickly to unlock the secret of time travel so she can set things right and protect her uncle’s research.

Sugar Time collects all four of Joy V. Smith’s Sugar Sweet stories into one volume. I had tremendous fun editing this volume. If you enjoy a good time travel romp, this might just be the book to put at the top of your summer reading list.

Get the book at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/567992

El Paso Comic Con 2018

Next weekend, I’ll be at El Paso Comic Con in El Paso, Texas. The event is being held from Friday, April 13 through Sunday, April 15 at the El Paso Convention Center. Special guests for the weekend include Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, and Marina Sirtis who played Riker, Data and Troi, respectively in Star Trek: The Next Generation. There will be cosplay, vendors, and panels all weekend long. You can get more information about the event at: http://elpasocomiccon.com/

Through much of the event, you will be able to find me at booth A30 in the vendor hall. I will have all my books available for sale and I’ll be happy to answer your questions. Also, on Sunday, April 15 at 11am, I’ll join authors C.M. Bratton, Ken Hudnall, Ray Ramos and R.H. Webster for a special Q&A session in the Juarez Panel Room. Be sure to bring all your questions for us!

At the event, I’ll be unveiling the second edition of my novel The Solar Sea, which tells the story of a voyage through the solar system aboard a solar sail space craft. In the novel, the crew hope to solve the mystery of particles that apparently travel through time, found in great quantity around Saturn’s moon, Titan. Along the way, the crew of the Solar Sail Aristarchus find clues to suggest that we are not alone in the universe after all.

Much of the plot is imaginary, but my goal was to transport readers to Mars, Jupiter and Titan as we know them to be. I also transported them using a technology that’s being developed. As it turns out, the Planetary Society is getting ready to launch their LightSail 2 spacecraft aboard an upcoming SpaceX flight. LightSail 2 has now been integrated into the NanoSat in preparation for launch. You can learn more about the process at the latest edition of The Planetary Post featuring Robert Picardo (from Star Trek: Voyager) and several special guest stars.

The Solar Sea on Clearance

This past week, I’ve been reading the fine steampunk adventure Arabella on Mars by David D. Levine. It’s a fine novel that won the 2017 Andre Norton Award for best young adult novel. One of this fantasy novel’s conceits is that it imagines an atmosphere in interplanetary space that allows ships to sail between planets in the 1800s.

When I read the novel, I couldn’t help but think that while sailing between the planets without an atmosphere would have been beyond nineteenth century technology, it’s not beyond our current technology. In fact, I wrote a futuristic science fiction novel about such a journey called The Solar Sea. Solar sails don’t work by harnessing wind, or even the so-called solar wind, but they move by light pressure. About three years ago, I wrote a post that goes into some detail about how it works. You can read more here: https://davidleesummers.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/solar-sailing/

In my novel, I imagine a future where humans got as far as building lunar factories, but the will to go farther out into space died. While I know there’s still a strong interest in exploring space, I fear many of the people who control this country’s money don’t see the value in investing real money in all aspects of space exploration. As an example, the Trump administration routinely touts it’s support of space exploration, yet proposed significant cuts to astronomy funding in its initial budget.

I sometimes wonder if it will take a major discovery to give us the impetus to push out into space again as we did in the 1960s and 1970s. In the novel, a technician from the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico discovers powerful particles orbiting Saturn’s moon, Titan, which could be a new energy source. When the discovery is announced, whales around the world changed their songs.

This chain of events encourages the owner of the powerful Quinn Corporation to build a solar sail to find the source of these particles in Titan’s orbit. He gathers the best and brightest team to pilot his craft: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist specializing in whale communication; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. All together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

Earlier this year, my publisher and I decided to take The Solar Sea out of print. There were several reasons for this. Partly, science and technology have caught up with the novel and I thought I worthwhile to revise it to make it more accurate. Partly the ebook was created ages ago and wasn’t up to the standards of newer ebooks, so I want to address this aspect as well. Once I finish work on my steampunk novel Owl Riders, I will turn my attention to some of my out of print titles.

In the meantime, I have a few copies of the first edition of The Solar Sea left in my stock and I’m even offering them at half off the cover price. You can order copies at http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.html#solarsea. I would be delighted to sign any copies you buy. Just email me at hadrosaur [at] zianet [dot] com (replacing the info between the brackets with the relevant characters) and let me know that you would like it signed. If you would like them personalized, just tell me so and let me know who to sign the book to.