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Bill Nye launches Kickstarter to push solar sailing cubesat to space

Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, shows an example of the very thin Mylar that the LightSail will use, and which squares are being offered in return for pledges on Kickstarter. (TPS)
May 13, 2015

- Bill Nye ("The Science Guy") wants you to be a part – and get a part – of a "revolutionary solar sailing spacecraft" mission.

As leader of The Planetary Society, a non-profit dedicated to the exploration of the solar system, Nye has launched a crowdfunding campaign for the LightSail, a "citizen-funded flight by light" that will demonstrate a space travel concept first popularized by Carl Sagan nearly 40 years ago.

"Come along on a cosmic journey with me by participating in a mission to sail a spacecraft, a tiny CubeSat no bigger than a breadbox, on beams of light," invites Nye on the LightSail project's Kickstarter page. "Through this proof-of-concept mission, we will use CubeSats to open new paths beyond Earth and one day potentially to other planets with an inexpensive, inexhaustible means of propulsion."

To raise the $200,000 (and more) needed for the mission, Nye and The Planetary Society are giving away symbolic squares of the solar sail itself, as well as other rewards in return for pledges.

Click to enlarge and watch video in a pop-up window. (TPS)

Gaining momentum

"You may not have thought about it, but light is made of photons and photons have no mass," Nye explains as part of a video for the campaign. "But they have momentum."

"So if sunlight is shining on something, it is actually giving it a tiny, tiny push," he said.

Spacecraft can capture this momentum by using a large, lightweight mirrored surface. In the case of The Planetary Society's LightSail, it is actually four triangular Mylar sails that are each one-fourth the thickness of an average trash bag.

As light reflects off the Mylar, most of its momentum is transferred, pushing on the sail. The resulting acceleration is small, but it is continuous, such that the spacecraft can reach higher speeds over time.

Fully-deployed, LightSail will span 344 sq. feet (32 sq. m.) (TPS)

The Planetary Society will demonstrate LightSail in space with a test flight scheduled to launch on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 20.

"We will test our prototype this month and next by flying it in low-Earth orbit for about 30 days," Nye said. "While our Kickstarter campaign runs, you will be able to follow along as we validate the deployment of our sail booms."

The prototype will not soar high enough above the Earth's atmosphere to demonstrate solar sailing. About one week after sail deployment, the LightSail's orbit will decay and it will burn-up on re-entry.

The primary LightSail mission, which will orbit high above the Earth after being launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, is currently slated for launch in fall 2016, assuming The Planetary Society can raise the remaining $1.2 million of the full $5.45 million the mission will cost.

Sail sale

"We don't expect to get [the remaining funds] all from one source at one time, but you can put us on the trajectory to launching in 2016," Nye said. "We're setting an ambitious Kickstarter goal of $200,000, with stretch goals that take us all the way up to the $1 million mark."

The campaign reached its "ambitious" goal of $200,000 on just its second day. It runs through June 26.

Official LightSail mission patch designed by Chop Shop. (TPS)

Most of that support has come in the form of $35 pledges, which is rewarded with a mission emblem decal and pin or patch, a Planetary Society membership, and a "centimeter of sail."

"Backers at this level will own one square centimeter of LightSail, and a certificate of ownership to go with it!" the campaign page states.

Other rewards include a LightSail t-shirt, a LightSail-gazing kit, a limited edition LightSail poster, and more — even a chance to send your name on the LightSail in 2016.

"We want you to give the LightSail a kick... to kickstart-it!" Nye exclaimed.

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