Bill Nye’s LightSail Spacecraft Finally Deploys Solar Sail

After some twists and turns, Bill Nye’s revolutionary LightSail spacecraft has finally deployed its solar sail, at least they believe it’s finally deployed. The Planetary Society, the organization carrying out the project, won’t know for sure until the spacecraft passes overhead and reestablishes contact on Monday. Until then, they are encouraging amateur astronomers to get visual contact of the shining LightSail.

“It worked!” Bill Nye explained.

According to the Planetary Society’s blog, the LightSail sprung back to life Sunday afternoon and “sail deployment began at 3:47 p.m. EDT (19:47 UTC) off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, as the spacecraft traveled northwest to southeast.”

The mission controllers got the sail about halfway deployed before it passed out of range. Bill Nye, the CEO of the Planetary Society, explained that afterwards “there was no reason to expect it wouldn’t keep going.”

Sail deployment is a big milestone for the LightSail project, but getting to this point has been a roller coaster ride, after the spacecraft suffered from two crippling events.

The New York Times documented the ups and downs of the LightSail project.

First, the Planetary Society hitchhiked on a U.S. rocket and successfully reached a low-orbit.

After two days of normal activity, a software bug suddenly made the breadbox-sized LightSail satellite go silent. For eight days, the mission lingered without any positive signs.

Then, a charged particle passed through the computer, causing it to restart.

When Bill Nye’s Planetary Society reestablished communications, they quickly started trying to deploy the LightSail’s solar panels – which ended in a battery failure.

Mission manager David Spencer explained that going from the shadow of the Earth to sunlight, with the solar panels out, may have led to a power surge.

The mission controllers again reestablished contact with the LightSail and scrambled to unfurl the solar sail before something else went wrong.

Deploying the solar sail will be the craft’s last goal. Once achieved, its orbit will decay and it will burn up in the atmosphere. Later, the organization will launch a second craft, to really test the idea of solar sailing.

It might seem like a lot of problems to test a new form of space propulsion, but the LightSail project is space travel on the cheap. In fact, that’s one of the biggest benefits of solar sailing.

The two LightSail missions will cost the Planetary Society about $5.6 million, even though they have the potential to travel enormous distances. The spacecraft saves money by not needing any propellant after leaving Earth – at least, no human-made propellant. The LightSail uses its solar sail to catch photons from the sun, which pushes it through the universe.

The push from photons is small, but the LightSail is pushed continuously as long as it has the sun. Added up through time, the spacecraft can travel to the distant reaches of the solar system and beyond.

Bill Nye and the Planetary Society are also encouraging the public to get involved in a few different ways.

First, the blog (which can be found here) gives some tips for spotting the LightSail through a telescope.

Timing will be critical, according to the instructions.

“Look for flyovers that occur around dawn and dusk. The best time to see any spacecraft—including LightSail—is when you are standing in Earth’s shadow but the spacecraft is still illuminated by sunlight.”

For those people who don’t want to wake up early in the morning, the Bill Nye’s organization is also looking for crowdfunding dollars with a Kickstarter, which can be found here.

[Image Credit: Planetary Society]