Bill Nye, beloved Science Guy and popular proponent of all things educational, is trying to raise money to fund a LightSail mission to space. The project, starting with a test flight next week followed by a complete launch in 2016, involves a “solar sail” spacecraft uses the sun's radiation for propulsion.
Nye is now the CEO of the Planetary Society, the astronomy focused non-profit co-founded by astrophysicist Carl Sagan in 1980. In fact Sagan, host of the original “Cosmos” TV series, was the first to suggest LightSails, saying that the small spacecraft could lower the cost of space exploration by being powered only by sunlight (like a sailboat and wind). As a private organization the Planetary Society is trying to raise about $1.2 million, and they hope the first $200,000 will come from Kickstarter.
“Photons (particles of light) have no [mass], but they are pure energy, and they have momenteum,” Nye wrote during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session when asked to explain the LightSail as simply as possible. “So, in the vacuum of space, we can design a very low mass spacecraft with a very large reflective area, and it will get a continuous push...It's not magic, it's science.”
Now, 40 years after Sagan's idea lightbulb first went off the LightSail is close to becoming a reality. The LightSail and the CubeSat technology that powers it will hitch a ride with the Atlas V rocket scheduled to launch May 20. The CubeSat is expected to spend roughly a month in orbit, when it will beam images back to Earth and communication with scientists located at ground stations throughout the U.S.