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Bill Nye’s plan to bring Carl Sagan’s sailing spacecraft to life was funded in a day

The Planetary Society & Bill Nye plan to launch LightSail, a new spacecraft designed to propel through space on beams of sunlight. (Video: Planetary Society)

A proposed spacecraft that could explore space by sailing around on sunbeams sounds like poetry. But the project, imagined by Carl Sagan and now championed by Bill Nye, is one step closer to being very real: it reached its $200,000 Kickstarter goal in just over 24 hours.

The idea of exploring space with a silvery, kite-like spacecraft has fascinated researchers and exploration enthusiasts ever since Sagan showed a prototype of the idea to Johnny Carson back in 1976. Its fabric sails would catch the momentum from the photons of a sunbeam, propelling it slowly and continuously through space, without its own fuel system. Here's what Nye told Speaking of Science's Rachel Feltman about the latest iteration of the idea, dubbed LightSail, previously:

"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!"

Nye is calling the LightSail the "people’s spacecraft," in part because of the role ordinary supporters can have in getting the project off the ground. But also, Nye added in a statement on Kickstarter, if realized, LightSail could be a relatively affordable option for "low-cost citizen projects" involving space exploration -- including faculty and student-led university projects.

Right now, the funding campaign has passed the $200,000 it needs to build the spacecraft. It's quickly closing in on the first reach goal of $325,000, which, organizers say, would support the project's integration and testing plans with several partner organizations. The project is also funded by the members of the Planetary Society -- an organization that Sagan founded, and Nye now leads. The campaign will keep raising money to fund other elements of the project, until donations close in late June.

[Bill Nye and The Planetary Society to launch a satellite that will ‘sail on sunbeams’]

The LightSail would propel a CubeSat spacecraft about the size of a loaf of bread. CubeSat is another low-cost space exploration project -- the tiny satellites have already become somewhat popular with amateur, university, and student initiatives. These days, CubeSats usually get into space as passengers on a larger craft.

The Planetary Society is planning a test launch of their LightSail prototype on May 20, hitching a ride on an Atlas V rocket. While the launch won't take the craft out of the Earth's atmosphere enough to enable a test of the actual sailing functions, researchers are hoping to "test our sail deployment sequence and snap some pretty pictures." The team plans a full test of the craft in 2016.

LightSail is not the first proposed solar sail mission. In the 1970s, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed -- and eventually scrapped -- a mission to send a solar sailing vessel to catch up with Halley's Comet as it made a close pass by Earth in 1986. The Russian Space Agency launched Znamya 2 in 1993,  a satellite featuring a large foil reflector that some say behaved a lot like how a solar sail might, as NASA's history of solar sails explains. But the satellite couldn't control its own flight, and its mirror eventually burned up in the atmosphere.

[A fantastic idea Carl Sagan showed Johnny Carson in 1976 is about to become reality]

The Japan Aerospace Exploration agency deployed the first true solar sail ever in 2005, but the sail was not a fully-functional, free-flying craft. At around the same time, NASA notes, the Planetary Society was working on its own previous solar sail project. That project came to a sudden end when the rocket that was supposed to propel it into orbit failed.

NASA also notes that the idea of "sailing" through space in some fashion is even older. Johannes Kepler, for instance, suggested 400 years ago that comet tails were blown back by a solar "breeze," and that "ships and sails proper for heavenly air should be fashioned" to move through space on that "breeze."

Clearly, there's a lot of intrigue and enthusiasm for this latest attempt to send a solar sail out into the universe beyond Earth. There are also a lot of things that can go wrong. As Nye's campaign sums it up in a word of caution to its backers, "space is hard."

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