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A spacecraft just made history with solar-powered travel — and Cal Poly students helped

Space history was made Tuesday with the help of Cal Poly students and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

A small, citizen-funded satellite unfurled a solar sail around 11:40 a.m. Tuesday while passing over San Luis Obispo.

The Planetary Society project had its mission control at Cal Poly. Nye, an educator, engineer and television personality, is the CEO of The Planetary Society, which was co-founded by Carl Sagan in 1980.

A student assisted with operations Tuesday and others have been helping with spacecraft communication throughout the month.

The small CubeSat satellite, LightSail 2, is about the size of a loaf of bread and deployed a boxing ring-sized solar sail. It is attempting to become the first spacecraft to travel solely by sunlight around Earth’s orbit.

The satellite deployed four triangular-shaped Mylar sails that connected into a large square. The sail took about three minutes to reach its full size.

The project is testing solar propulsion, which doesn’t require fuel and uses photons. Photons are packets of energy that comprise light, and according to a news release from The Planetary Society, as the sun’s light reflects off the solar sail, photon momentum transfers and pushes the sail.

Project manager Bruce Betts described the energy in the control room on campus as exciting, but tense. After the sail finished deployment successfully, the team clapped and congratulated one another.

The sail is expected to raise the satellite’s orbit a few hundred meters a day. As of Tuesday, the satellite’s current orbit was approximately 720 kilometers high.

Over the course of a month, the sail is expected to raise the spacecraft’s orbit 10 kilometers.

Betts said the technology has the potential to be used not just for orbit, but interplanetary travel with small spacecraft.

Cal Poly physics senior Michael Fernandez, the main Cal Poly student helping with spacecraft operations, compared the spacecraft to a boat.

“It’s harnessing the power of sun,” Fernandez said. “Much like boats on Earth use power of wind, we’re using the power of sun in space to propel us.”

On Tuesday, Nye called into a classroom across from the control room via video and answered questions from students and visitors.

The LightSail2 satellite was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Florida at the end of June and has been in orbit preparing for the sail deployment since the beginning of the month.

CubeSats are low-cost, miniature satellites. CubeSat technology was created by former Cal Poly professor Jordi Puig-Suari and Stanford professor Bob Twiggs in 1999.

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