Carl Sagan, creator of the original Cosmos series, proposed that a spaceship could use solar sails, powered by only the sun’s rays, to glide through space. Now, the Planetary Society, co-founded by Sagan, and currently run by none other than Bill Nye, is planning a test flight for LightSail, a spacecraft based on his vision. LightSail is an incredibly small spacecraft, measuring in at only 10 x 30 cm, which is about the size of a loaf of bread. The small little box holds 32 square meters of mylar, which will unfold to create solar sails, designed to glide on energy from solar radiation in the same manner that a sailboat is powered by wind.
The science behind the contraption is sound. According to Nye, “Sunlight, or light, even though it has no mass, has momentum. So, it can push these [sails] through space.” As the sun is a practically limitless energy source, harnessing its rays could be a way to cut costs on future spaceflights. The research team hopes to apply this technology to future missions in space.
The first test flight is scheduled for May 20th, 2015. The purpose of the flight is to see whether LightSail can deploy its huge Mylar sails in orbit. In the first flight, the spacecraft will maintain a low orbit, but the team behind LightSail is planning a flight to test its sunlight harvesting capabilities next April.
The hardware is so delicate that everything is prepped in a clean room and scientists have to physically scrub in to work on LightSail’s architecture. The vast Mylar sails have to be hand folded just-so, in order for them to open properly when in flight.
Check out this behind-the-scenes video of the making of LightSail, featuring everyone’s favorite Science Guy, Bill Nye.