Why Bill Nye's Solar Sail Matters for the Future of Space Travel

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LightSail2 successfully flies into space using sunlight. The Planetary Society

The idea of using sunlight to travel through space has been around for centuries, but Bill Nye and The Planetary Society are the first to make that concept a reality. The nonprofit Planetary Society announced that its crowdfunded solar sailing spacecraft, LightSail 2, has successfully raised its orbit using only the power of sunbeams.

"We're thrilled to announce mission success for LightSail 2," said LightSail program manager and Planetary Society chief scientist Bruce Betts. "Our criteria was to demonstrate controlled solar sailing in a CubeSat by changing the spacecraft's orbit using only the light pressure of the Sun, something that's never been done before. I'm enormously proud of this team. It's been a long road and we did it."

Years of work and $7 million in crowdfunding culminated in this achievement. The spacecraft launched on June 25, opened its sails on July 23 is expected to continue in this mode for the next month.

"For The Planetary Society, this moment has been decades in the making," said Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye. "Carl Sagan talked about solar sailing when I was in his class in 1977. But the idea goes back at least to 1607, when Johannes Kepler noticed that comet tails must be created by energy from the Sun. The LightSail 2 mission is a game-changer for spaceflight and advancing space exploration."

How it works

The animation above gives a great sense of how LightSail 2 works. The spacecraft is controlled autonomously, and twists 90 degrees every 50 minutes to optimize the amount of energy it receives from any angle at any given time.

At a more basic level, the shiny sail on the spacecraft reflects particles of light called photons. As the photons bounce off the sail, they create tiny amounts of momentum, much like the wind blowing into a ship's sails.

Over the next year, researchers studying the spacecraft will work on ways to optimize its operation in hopes of expanding on the success of LightSail 2.

The implications of successful solar sailing could transform the way we look at space travel and how spacecraft are powered moving forward.

For now, it could help shift a spacecraft's orbit or allow it hover in place. However, solar sailing could be the key to visiting other planets, terraforming Mars or even going beyond our own solar system in years to come.

The next application of the solar sail technology will come in 2020 with NASA's Near-Asteroid Scout mission, which will use a solar sail and a miniature satellite to gather information on asteroids traveling close to Earth that could be future destinations for humans.

Hopefully, NASA's use of the technology and the public momentum behind LightSail 2 will help push this idea to even more transformative level.

"LightSail 2 proves the power of public support," said Planetary Society COO Jennifer Vaughn. "This moment could mark a paradigm shift that opens up space exploration to more players. It amazes me that 50,000 people came together to fly a solar sail. Imagine if that number became 500,000 or 5 million. It’s a thrilling concept."

This image was taken during the LightSail 2 sail deployment sequence on 23 July 2019
Baja California and Mexico are visible on Earth, which serves as a background for LightSail 2 as it utilized its dual 185-degree fisheye camera lenses. The Planetary Society

LightSale 2 recently sent back several images, like the one above, while deploying the sail using the sun's rays.

It's a visual that inspires hope of what's possible with this technology. Perhaps The Planetary Society's mission to "know the cosmos and our place within it" isn't as far-fetched as we once thought.