Education

Bill Nye returns to Cal Poly for LightSail spacecraft test

Bill Nye and LightSail 2 at Cal Poly

Bill Nye the Science Guy visited Cal Poly on Monday, May 23, 2016, to discuss the LightSail 2 space mission. The project is anticipated for launch in March 2017.
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Bill Nye the Science Guy visited Cal Poly on Monday, May 23, 2016, to discuss the LightSail 2 space mission. The project is anticipated for launch in March 2017.

Bill Nye, the educator and TV personality known as “the Science Guy,” hopes that all systems are go for a planned 2017 deployment of a solar-powered, lightweight space sail to higher orbit.

Nye visited Cal Poly on Monday, along with teams of engineers, to monitor a successful test of a craft’s solar panel and antenna deployment at the university’s Advanced Technology Laboratories.

The project, a team effort involving Cal Poly and the Georgia Institute of Technology, is called the LightSail project.

The $5.45 million citizen-funded mission has been coordinated by the Planetary Society, a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that promotes the exploration of space. Nye is the society’s chief executive director.

I’m most excited that this project has moved forward from a managerial standpoint. We’ll be ready to go.

Bill Nye, The Science Guy and Planetary Society executive director

Nye cheered along with several Cal Poly engineering students as the spacecraft’s 344-square-foot Mylar sails unfurled in the afternoon. The same material will be released 447 miles above the Earth into orbit early next year.

“I’m really glad it works,” Nye said. “Yes, yes, yes.”

Cal Poly has played a key role in the development of the LightSail project, assisting with the testing and software that will help coordinate its flight.

“I’m most excited that this project has moved forward from a managerial standpoint,” Nye said. “We’ll be ready to go.”

The idea behind a light-powered spacecraft is that it could innovate a lighter-weight, cost-efficient method of space exploration for a variety of scientific missions. If successful, future LightSail projects could involve collecting scientific data and improving solar flight control.

The technology also could detect geomagnetic storms on the sun, which can harm power and communication systems on earth and orbiting spacecrafts.

The LightSail will be neatly folded, like origami, and packed into a three-unit CubeSat, a miniature satellite that measures 4-by-4-by-12 inches.

Cal Poly aerospace professor Jordi Puig-Suari co-invented the CubeSat industry standard used by space scientists around the world. The device used in LightSail has been engineered by others to suit the mission.

The LightSail will be launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and then released into orbit from Prox-1, a small spacecraft designed by Georgia Tech.

Ground stations at Cal Poly and Georgia Tech will control the mission.

“Basically, today is the full mission compressed into a one-day event,” said David Spencer, LightSail’s mission manager. “This is the most complete and complex (test) that we’ll do during the development.”

An initial test flight, called LightSail 1, was completed in June 2015 within the Earth’s atmospheric drag. The next trip, LightSail 2, envisioned for March 2017, will attempt its first controlled, Earth-orbit solar sail flight.

Cal Poly has played a very direct role as far as software developments. They’re also going to be really leading the mission operations tracking the spacecraft.

David Spencer, LightSail mission manager

The spacecraft, consisting of material about one-fourth the thickness of the average trash bag, will be propelled by photons, or tiny particles that make up light, which travel as a bunch and generate energy and momentum.

The shiny sails will be visible from Earth, and viewing gatherings will be held to watch its flight.

Further environmental studies on how the shaking and temperature of the rocket travel could impact the device are planned for the coming months at Cal Poly.

“Cal Poly has played a very direct role as far as software developments,” Spencer said. “They’re also going to be really leading the mission operations tracking the spacecraft.”

Mechanical engineering student Alex Nichols, who is part of the PolySat team that works on CubeSat missions, said that it was awesome to have Nye back on campus. (His team isn’t involved with the LightSail project directly.)

“I grew up watching his show in my science classes,” Nichols said of Nye. “It’s great to see him here and all that he’s doing with this project.”

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