Earlier this morning, Bill Nye — now The Planetary Society guy — and his team successfully launched their “LightSail” spacecraft into space aboard an Atlas V rocket (as part of a secondary payload on the US Air Force’s X-37B space plane mission). For the next four weeks, this tiny “CubeSat” or breadbox-sized, low-cost satellite will orbit in our atmosphere and eventually unfurl its sails.
— Planetary Society (@exploreplanets) May 20, 2015
Solar sailing was first popularized by the late, great Carl Sagan on the Johnny Carson show. Since then, The Planetary Society (of which Nye is the CEO) has picked up where Sagan left off. With a fully-funded Kickstarter campaign supporting them, Nye and the Society hope to prove the feasibility of solar sailing starting with this initial test. However, the LightSail will not make it high enough on today’s launch to see if it can harness the cosmic wind.
“The 2015 test flight will not carry the spacecraft high enough to escape Earth’s atmospheric drag, and will thus not demonstrate controlled solar sailing,” said The Planetary Society in a press release. “Once in orbit, the spacecraft will go through a checkout and testing period of about four weeks before deploying its solar sails.” After that, the tiny spacecraft will be directed to burn up above our heads.
Solar sailing works by harnessing the miniscule momentum carried by photons streaming in from the stars. These photons strike the boxing-ring sized Mylar sails on LightSail, and donate their momentum bit by bit. It’s a slow start, but over time, the constant acceleration of LightSail will add up, eventually eclipsing speeds attainable through traditional chemical rockets.
The launch of LightSail represents more than just trying out photon fuel. LightSail is a method of propulsion, yes, but it’s not a specific way to examine space. The innovation here would be to take advantage of the fact that solar sails could accompany any low-cost CubeSat to open up space exploration to universities and the public alike.
The Society’s first attempt at controlled solar sailing will occur in 2016. For updates on LightSails’ current mission, head over to The Planetary Society.