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Bill Nye’s Tiny Orbital Craft Will Sail On Sunlight

Bill Nye’s nonprofit is scheduled to launch a bread loaf-sized craft that will deploy a 350-square-foot, sun-catching sail.

Space exploration nonprofit The Planetary Society is set to launch a small spacecraft this May to test the viability of solar sails.

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The Planetary Society’s spacecraft, LightSail, is tiny–four inches by four inches by one foot, the size of a loaf of bread, says The New York Times. Once in orbit, the LightSail will undergo a month of testing before extending four 13-foot booms and unfurling four triangular pieces of Mylar less than 1/5,000 of an inch thick. The rig will form a square sail nearly 345 square feet.

Back in the 1860s, physicist James Clerk Maxwell posited that photons (tiny light particles) impart a bit of momentum when bouncing off shiny surfaces. Get enough of those particles hammering a big enough surface, and a spacecraft could “sail” through the stars, the theory goes.

Photo:Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

“We strongly believe this could be a big part of the future of interplanetary missions,” The Planetary Society’s chief executive William Sanford Nye told The New York Times. “It will ultimately eventually take a lot of missions a long, long way.”

William Nye is, of course, Bill Nye The Science Guy, host of the eponymous science show that captivated children in the mid-’90s. Noted for his enthusiasm and extensive bowtie collection, Nye is a beloved champion of STEM education and has supported domestic solar energy to wean homes off of fossil fuel-generated electricity.

Nye’s current position as the CEO of The Planetary Society is the result of a meeting with his former professor Carl Sagan at Nye’s 10-year Cornell reunion–a passing of the baton from one science legend to the next.

The first LightSail will reach an unspecified orbit–undisclosed because a military satellite is also part of the payload in the Atlas V rocket launching the LightSail–and then drop back into the atmosphere a few days after sail deployment and burn up upon re-entry. The first LightSail won’t stay in orbit because the air drag pulling the sail at that altitude will be greater than the photons pushing it.

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Next year will see the launch of a second LightSail, this time from a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, to an altitude of 450 miles (almost twice the height of the International Space Station’s orbit). The second LightSail is expected to demonstrate truly controlled solar sailing around Earth.

[via The New York Times ]