Solar Sail Unfurls In Space

Jun 8, 2015
Originally published on July 7, 2015 3:47 pm

A group of space enthusiasts has successfully launched a solar sail into orbit.

The test could be a first step to cheaper exploration of the solar system, according to Bill Nye, the CEO of the nonprofit Planetary Society, which launched the satellite.

Solar sails allow space travel to be essentially free. When sunlight bounces off the shiny surface of the sails, it gives the spaceship a tiny push.

The push is slow, but steady, and Nye envisions small spacecraft in the future using solar sails to travel to the moon, asteroids and beyond, without the need for bulky rocket fuel.

"Once you're up in space, and you deploy the sails, sunlight will take you wherever you want to go," he says.

The Planetary Society's test of the technology is called LightSail. It is designed to be smaller than a loaf of bread. Folded tightly inside are four sails of shiny Mylar, the stuff balloons are made of.

"They deploy from this little box to a thing bigger than your living room," Nye says.

At least in theory. When it launched in May, LightSail had problems with its software and batteries. Then, Earth's atmosphere started to make it tumble out of control.

On Sunday night, mission managers decided it was time to try and unfurl the sails before things got any worse. They had just minutes to command the sails to open. It was, what Nye describes as "a sail Mary pass."

But it appears to have worked. Data from the spacecraft show the motors unfurled the giant sail.

"I was just elated," says Nye, who was TV's Science Guy.

This version of LightSail won't go anywhere using sunlight. It was just to see if the Mylar panels could unfurl in space.

Next year, the Planetary Society hopes to launch a second version that will actually be able to do some sailing.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to learn about something now called solar sailing. Yesterday, a group of space enthusiasts successively unfurled a solar sail. They say it could someday propel spacecraft to other worlds. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has our sailing lesson.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Sailing in space is not like sailing on Earth. There's no wind to speak of, but there is plenty of light.

BILL NYE: Solar sails take advantage of sunlight, which shines all the time.

BRUMFIEL: Bill Nye heads The Planetary Society, a nonprofit that wants to explore the solar system on a budget. Sunlight is cheap - free, actually. And when it bounces off something shiny, the shiny thing moves. That's solar sailing. The Planetary Society's new spacecraft is called LightSail. It was designed to be smaller than a loaf of bread. Folded inside were four sales of shiny Mylar, the stuff balloons are made of.

NYE: They deploy from this little box to a thing bigger than your living room.

BRUMFIEL: At least in theory. When it launched in May, LightSail had problems with its software and batteries. Then it started to tumble out of control. Late last night, mission managers had just minutes to command the sails to open.

NYE: A sail Mary pass - that's my interpretation.

BRUMFIEL: But it looks like it worked.

NYE: Oh, man. I was just elated.

BRUMFIEL: This version of LightSail won't go anywhere using sunlight. It was just to see if the Mylar panels could unfurl in space. Next year, the society hopes to launch a second version that will actually be able to do some sailing. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.