A citizen-funded mini satellite will attempt to deploy a solar sail above Earth in a test to examine the principles of propelling small spacecrafts to the edges of the solar system using energy from the Sun. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: Can a sail as wide as a decent sized studio apartment but only a fraction as thick as a strand of hair be deployed from a box smaller than a loaf of bread? The answer is yes. Can it be done after being rocketed into space? Maybe. That's a the question a team from the Planetary Society hope to answer on May 20th, when their tiny CubeSat hitches a ride into orbit aboard an Atlas 5 rocket launching from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The project is called Lightsail, a citizen funded experiment to test if small spacecraft could travel throughout the solar system powered by the sun. Bill Nye heads up the planetary society. He says he gets many odd looks when he explains the concept of flight by light. (SOUNDBITE) (English) BILL NYE, CEO, PLANETARY SOCIETY, SAYING: "This may seem incredible at first but it is nevertheless true that sunlight has momentum even though it has no mass. Photons have no mass but they still impart momentum when they strike an object. What? You're kidding? No but it's a tiny, tiny amount of momentum. Nevertheless, if you have a big enough sail and a low enough mass bus as we call it or a spacecraft it will get a push." That push is unbelievably small but it is constant. And if you can deploy a large enough sail to catch the sun's push and your spacecraft doesn't weigh much - it could conceivably travel, gaining momentum over time, to the edges of the solar system and beyond. But here's the catch - you need a really big, extremely thin sail made of reflective mylar. (SOUNDBITE) (English) BILL NYE, CEO, PLANETARY SOCIETY, SAYING: "This first time out is a test. The big question, from an engineering standpoint not a physics standpoint, is getting the sails to deploy. This is where everything goes wrong." Folding a 340 square foot sail and fitting it into a space smaller than a shoe box is impressive. Unfurling that sail after it launches into orbit aboard a rocket…that could be tricky. If the test is a success, it paves the way for a fully fledged solar sailing demonstration next year.