In a tragic twist of events, Bill Nye's solar-particle-propelled spacecraft has lost communications with Earth.
The error, which stems from a simple software glitch, potentially threatens the entire mission: The only thing researchers think will salvage the experiment is a reboot of the computer — and efforts to reset the orbiting craft, called LightSail, aren't working.
"There have been 37 Cal Poly and Georgia Tech ground station passes," wrote Jason Davis, Planetary Society's digital editor, in a blog post. "During half of those, reboot commands were sent to the spacecraft. Nothing has happened yet. Therefore, we have to assume that LightSail is only going to respond to the power button method."
LightSail is humanity's most ambitious attempt yet at harnessing solar propulsion. The small satellite comes with a 344-square-foot solar sail designed to accelerate the craft using only the tiny particles that are constantly being ejected from the sun.
But the early malfunction has largely taken the wind out of LightSail's, er, sail. Researchers traced the problem to an onboard data file that was constantly being updated with new information. Eventually the file size got too big, and it crashed the craft's avionics system, rendering it unresponsive.
"There’s nobody in outer space to push that reset button," Nye told Davis.
The only alternative now is to wait for a stray charged particle to hit the craft and cause a reboot — basically, the space-borne equivalent of giving your computer a whack, and hoping it works.