Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
The use of solar sails has been a dream for spacecraft developers for decades, but it could soon become a reality, thanks to the efforts of a nonprofit organization led by “Science Guy” Bill Nye.
Nye is the CEO of The Planetary Society, a nonprofit group that promotes space exploration, and his team announced on Monday that its privately-funded LightSail spacecraft would embark on its maiden test flight in May.
LightSail is scheduled to be helped into space by an Atlas V rocket blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. Once it reaches orbit, the solar sail satellite will undergo tests of its critical functions in advance of a second mission scheduled for 2016.
While NASA reportedly considered using similar technology in the 1970s for a mission to meet up with Halley’s comet in 1986, next year’s LightSail mission will mark the first-ever controlled, Earth-orbit solar sail flight, according to The Planetary Society.
“We strongly believe this could be a big part of the future of interplanetary missions,” Nye said in an interview with Kenneth Chang of The New York Times. “It will ultimately eventually take a lot of missions a long, long way.”
The theory behind LightSail’s technology is far from new, according to Chang. Equations of electromagnetism published in the 1860s by physicist James Clerk Maxwell explain that when particles of light known as photons bounce off of a shiny surface, they pass along a little bit of momentum. Five years later, in his book From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne discussed (hypothetically) how this force could be harnessed for space travel.
Now, Nye and his colleagues are working to turn what was once just fiction into reality. Their craft is approximately the same size as a loaf of bread – 4 inches by 4 inches by 1 foot, according to Chang. Once it reaches orbit, LightSail will undergo about a month’s worth of testing before extending four 13-foot-long booms and unfurling four triangular pieces of reflective Mylar (each less than 1/5,000th of an inch thick) to form a sail spanning over 340 square feet.
“There’s an old saying in aerospace, ‘One test is worth a thousand expert opinions.’ After six years of development, we’re ready at last to see how LightSail flies,” Nye said in a statement. “LightSail is technically wonderful, but it’s also wonderfully romantic.”
The May test flight is designed to make sure that the sail deploys as designed, and that other critical systems of the spacecraft work as intended. While the Society cannot reveal how high the probe will be flying, as the primary payload of the Atlas 5 is a military satellite, they did say that the drag of air hitting the sail will be greater than the pressure of light.
“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,” said Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and a member of the Planetary Society’s board of directors. “If space is tomorrow’s ocean, then Earth’s surface is its shoreline.” (Okay, this is the coolest thing we’ve heard this week.)
“LightSail is truly ‘the people’s satellite,’” added Nye. “Thanks to our members, the dream of citizen supported solar sailing will become a reality; the vision goes back to our founders, Lou Friedman, Bruce Murray, and Carl Sagan. We encourage space fans worldwide to join us on LightSail’s journey. Together we can change the world.”
Does this mean there will be space pirates in the future?