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Bill Nye and Planetary Society set to ride a sunbeam with LightSail 2 Solar Sail

By Doris Elin Salazar
June 24, 2019, 9:47:18 PM EDT

This Monday (June 24), the nonprofit organization The Planetary Society will launch LightSail 2, the first spacecraft propelled solely by sunlight, in a mission made possible by crowd-funding, officials said.

While it won't be the first spacecraft to successfully use a solar sail at some distance from Earth — that honor goes to the Japanese spacecraft Ikaros, which launched in 2010 — it is an important extension of that technology. The Planetary Society has twice attempted testing solar sailing in the past. LightSail 2's predecessor, a test mission called LightSail, launched May 20, 2015. Ten years prior, the organization had launched a lightsail dubbed Cosmos 1, but it was lost due to a rocket failure.

For Bill Nye, science communicator and CEO of The Planetary Society, the LightSail 2 mission taps into a long-held dream, inspired by his time spent 42 years ago sitting in Carl Sagan's classroom and listening to him talk about solar sailing, Nye said during a media teleconference held yesterday (June 20).

light sail

Artist's concept of LightSail 2 above Earth. (Image: © Josh Spradling/The Planetary Society)

Like a sailboat, the spacecraft is propelled by pressure; in the upcoming LightSail 2 demonstration test in low-Earth orbit, engineers want to see if a spacecraft can be propelled by the pressure of photons (particles of electromagnetic radiation) emanating from the sun.

To be pushed along by this solar wind, the core body of the LightSail 2 spacecraft — which is about the size of a loaf of bread— will release a 344-square-foot (32-square-meter) solar sail to surf in space.

"The key thing with Lightsail 2 is trying to demonstrate, for the first time, if you can do solar sailing with a small satellite; that it is viable, that we can control solar sailing," Bruce Betts, chief scientist and LightSail 2 program manager, said during the teleconference.

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