Posted on June 2nd, 2015

Reaching Orbit – LightSail

Who doesn’t love Bill Nye the Science Guy, and for that matter who doesn’t love Carl Sagan? These two people brought science and the Universe into our homes and onto our television sets. And while these two share a deep love of science and learning, they share something else in common. After everything he had accomplished in his career to educate the public, Carl Sagan went on to create The Planetary Society with Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, and now today Bill Nye is the CEO who carries on their legacy. The Planetary Society takes their work to another level, involving the public in space science and exploration by providing seed-funding to new and emerging technologies from publicly raised funds.

  Let Bill Nye tell you all about the LightSail project in the Bill Nye way! (Credit: The Planetary Society)

Their most recent project is fantastic! It blew through its goal of $200,000 on Kickstarter in a few days and will be well on its way to $1 million by the time it wraps up on June 26, 2015. The project is called LightSail and it is exactly what the name implies: a sail pushed by light. The main body of the spacecraft is a CubeSat, a small satellite about the size of a loaf of bread. Once in space, it will open its solar arrays to extend four booms outwards spreading a very thin layer of Mylar 4.5 microns thick and 32 meters square. The idea is that radiation from the Sun has no mass but it does have energy (i.e. photons) that is transferred to the Mylar when it makes contact, giving it a very small push. While this may seem like a negligible nudge, as more photons hit the sail, it will slowly build momentum with space’s absence of resistance. The LightSail is the tortoise to larger satellite’s hares, and slow and steady wins the race when it comes to crowd-sourced space exploration.

LightSailThis artist’s rendering of the LightSail in space shows the Mylar sheet once fully extended. (Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society. License)

Projects such as this one will lower the cost of entry into space exploration; and while the mass of the object needs to be minimal to facilitate movement, any number of experiments can be added to the CubeSat that sits behind the LightSail. The first test flight is already underway, having launched on an Atlas V rocket and released into orbit. This first mission is designed to test the on-board systems and sail deployment. The satellite won’t be flying far enough from Earth’s atmosphere to venture out into space, and it will eventually reenter the atmosphere in a few weeks. The next test flight will occur in 2016, where it will orbit the Earth and be monitored by Prox-1, a separate instrument designed to inspect satellites from a distance.

While the idea of low-mass, high-energy transportation has been floating around for a very long time, this is the first time the theory will be tested. Hopefully these tests lead to more innovative and to low-cost ways to explore the Universe. If you like the sound of this, you should consider becoming a member of The Planetary Society and contribute to space exploration.

Katie Nelson

Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718 – 7163
katie@apollomapping.com

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