Bill Nye (The Science Guy) wants you to get excited about space exploration. His latest effort is pretty tantalizing: Along with the rest of The Planetary Society, Nye is getting ready to launch a satellite powered by the sun. And we're not talking about boring old solar panels, either.
LightSail is like something out of a science fiction novel. The silvery material unfolds into a space-age version of a fabric sail. Then the sun pushes it forward, using the natural momentum of its photons. The force is small, but continuous.
"With a chemical rocket, there's a big boom, a phwooosh, the ground shakes, but then nine minutes later you're done and you're coasting all the way to Pluto," Nye said. "With these kind of sails, the propulsion doesn't just stop. It's on day and night -- except wait, there's no night!"
On Monday, The Planetary Society announced that their LightSail -- created with financial support from members -- will have its first test in May 2015. The Mylar sail is being tested as a propulsion source for a tiny spacecraft called a CubeSat that allow low-cost space missions for schools and researchers.
The 2015 test is just a preliminary one. The satellite will go into space on an Atlas 5 rocket, but won't go high enough to truly escape the pull of Earth's atmosphere. Instead the satellite will run through its systems and unfurl the sail, proving that it can be deployed successfully.
"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. If space is tomorrow's ocean, then Earth's surface is its shoreline," Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Hayden Planetarium director and Planetary Society board of directors member, said in a statement.
It's all very Sagan-esque:
That shouldn't come as a surprise, since deGrasse Tyson and Nye both studied astronomy under the godfather of cosmic wanderlust. That's where Nye first heard about solar sails.
"Carl Sagan was talking about using solar sails to catch up with the Halley comet back during the disco era," Nye told The Post. "This mission was going to be very cool -- a huge solar sail was going to just spin out there and catch up with a comet going at incredible speed."
But when the shuttle program gained popularity and ate up the budget, the idea languished until The Planetary Society (then led by Louis Friedman) launched Cosmos 1 in 2005. It failed to reach orbit and crashed into the sea, leaving the honor of first solar sail to 2010's Venus-bound IKAROS, a Japanese spacecraft.
"It takes years, being privately funded," Nye explained. "We had to go lick our wounds for awhile."
But he's not troubled by the long wait. To Nye and the rest of the organization, being funded by private citizens makes all the difference.
"The guys and gals who figured out LightSail are really good, and we did it for maybe a third of what a NASA mission would have cost." And NASA is always interested in seeing what engineers on the outside have accomplished with bootstrapped innovation.
"NASA has so many different things it's doing, appeasing so many different interests, that things are diffused," Nye said. He and the members of his organization want to see more missions to get to other planets -- an aspect of space exploration that only gets 9 percent of NASA's budget today.
And he's not satisfied with an obsession with a Mars colony.
"Look, some of my best friends are geologists," he joked. But if we're not looking for life, he's not happy.
"If we were to discover some kind of microbe on Mars, or something alive in the oceans of Europa, it would change the world. It would change human history. Everyone in the world would feel differently about what it meant to be alive," Nye said. "We're just trying to change the world, man."
So that's one small CubeSat launch for a science guy and one giant leap for human kind. Hopefully.