On Wednesday, Bill Nye and The Planetary Society will launch LightSail, their prototype for a spacecraft powered by the physical force of solar winds. This week's launch (on an Atlas V rocket) from Cape Canaveral won't bring the device into orbit. Instead, the launch will test what Nye says may be the trickiest part of a hypothetical flight: The deployment of the sail itself, which is as wide as a boxing ring and thinner than a strand of hair.

The sail sounds like something from a science fiction novel, and indeed that's where some of the earliest iterations of the concept come from. Here's Carl Sagan showing off the idea to Johnny Carson back in the '70s:

It's not a giant solar panel. It's a sail, just like one you'd find on a ship in the sea. But this one uses the momentum of sunlight -- which gives a physical push, even though it has no mass -- as a small but unwavering source of energy.

One day -- hopefully by next year -- the LightSail will be able to carry loaf-of-bread-sized satellites called CubeSat into space for low-cost, high-efficiency science experiments. The Planetary Society is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the next launch, which will put a functional LightSail spacecraft into orbit for at least four months. With more than a month left on the clock, the group has raised nearly $600,000. That's three times their initial goal, and they're now pushing to hit $1 million.

According to the group's Kickstarter page, they have enough money to launch the vessel, operate it, and partner with research groups from several universities to ensure that the satellite does some science while it's testing its sails. The closer the campaign gets to $1 million, the more public outreach Nye and his colleagues will be able to do.

"We are aiming to create a movement, not a moment," Nye writes. "LightSail propulsion truly holds the promise—dare I say it?—to change the world!"

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