World’s First Satellites Will Sail On Sunbeams

Space is where you will never mind to get lost dreaming about it.

Our universe is awesomely vast, deeply humbling. We’re a granular element. Our presence may even be ephemeral — a flash of luminescence in a great dark ocean. When we were kids, we helped our fathers sail boats on small rivers, dreaming one day we could sail those boats across the ocean. And now that we’re grown up, when we sail our boats, we still want to sail our childhood boats–not across the ocean, but sail into the infinite universe.

That dream was also the dream of Carl Sagan, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

On January 26th, Bill Nye and The Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes space exploration, announced that they would send the first of two small craft to test the technology of solar sails into orbit this May. The boat is ready to sail!

The craft, called LightSail, is something completely out of the science fiction novels. It’s about the size of a loaf of bread: 4 inches by 4 inches by 1 foot, and utilizing CubeSats.

Once in space, it will unfurl four sails — which are made from silvery material — totaling 345 square feet, and made out of Mylar sheets just five-thousandths of an inch thick. As photons strike the large surface, it will help propel the craft gradually. The flight will take place in low Earth orbit, with the craft burning up on re-entry within a few days.

“With a chemical rocket, there’s a big boom, a phwooosh, the ground shakes, but then nine minutes later you’re done and you’re coasting all the way to Pluto. With these kind of sails, the propulsion doesn’t just stop. It’s on day and night — except wait, there’s no night!” said Bill Nye the Science Guy, who was also Carl Sagan’s student.

The 2015 test is just a preliminary one. The LightSail won’t go high enough to demonstrate true sunlight sailing. This test is purposely to run through its systems and unfurl the sail, proving that it can be deployed successfully. The second flight is scheduled for 2016 with the collaboration of SpaceX. The second LightSail will be lofted to an altitude of 450 miles by a Falcon Heavy rocket. It will be the first demonstration of controlling solar sailing while in orbit around the Earth.

“The idea ultimately is to be able to tack like a sailboat on each orbit. This is a more accessible, easier-to-build gizmo. You don’t need a whole space agency,” said Nye

Both LightSails were built for less than $4 million. The idea came to Nye a decade ago, when The Planetary Society collaborated with Russian scientists on a solar sail spacecraft called Cosmos 1, raising $4 million from members. “I said, now we have a chance to realistically do something,” said Dr. Friedman, who left NASA in 1980 and helped found The Planetary Society, serving as its executive director.

After that, in 2005, Cosmos 1 was launched from a Russian nuclear submarine. But the rocket failed, and Cosmos 1 was lost before the sail could be tested.

With LightSail, Nye and his partners strongly believe this could be a big part of the future of interplanetary missions. “With the expected launch of LightSail — a craft propelled among the stars on the pressure of light itself — the expanse of space becomes a literal analogue to the open seas. If space is tomorrow’s ocean, then Earth’s surface is its shoreline,” said Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Hayden Planetarium director and Planetary Society board of directors member.

NASA is also interested in solar sails with the test of its CubeSat, NanoSail-D in 2011, demonstrating how a sail could be used to nudge decommissioned satellites back into the atmosphere. Two other NASA CubeSats with solar sails could go up with the first launching of NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, expected in 2018. One, Lunar Flashlight, will use a solar sail not only for propulsion but also to reflect light into shadowed craters near the moon’s poles, for a look at ice deposits there. The other, NEA Scout, is to visit an asteroid. Each one will cost about $15 million, far less than most NASA space rocket launches.

“If we were to discover some kind of microbe on Mars, or something alive in the oceans of Europa, it would change the world. It would change human history. Everyone in the world would feel differently about what it meant to be alive,” Nye said. “We’re just trying to change the world, man.”

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