Bill Nye Turns to Internet to Fund Carl Sagan's 'Solar Sailing' Mission

5-13-15 LightSail
Bill Nye and his team at the Planetary Society will test the LightSail on May 20. The crowdfunding campaign reached its initial goal in just a few hours. Josh Spradling/The Planetary Society

Bill Nye, known to many as "the science guy," and his colleagues are about to test the concept of "solar sailing." Nye's team at the Planetary Society—a nonprofit composed of space scientists, advocates and enthusiasts that "sponsors projects that will seed innovative space technologies, nurtures creative young minds, and is a vital advocate for our future in space"—will send a miniaturized satellite called a CubeSat into low-Earth orbit on May 20. The LightSail, as it's called, is propelled by the sun's energy instead of traditional sources of fuel.

But this is just a prelude to the primary mission, which is planned for the fall of 2016. With $1.2 million still left to raise out of the project's total cost of $5.45 million, Nye—who is the CEO of the Planetary Society—has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for LightSail. He announced the crowdfunding campaign along with Neil deGrasse Tyson in a video released Tuesday morning.

As Nye explains in the video, LightSail deploys four triangular Mylar sails (a total of over 32 square meters) once it has reached space. Though light's photons have no mass, he explains, they do have momentum. "So if we can get a spacecraft up in space that has enough area and has low enough mass, sunlight gives it a push," he says. "Even though the push from sunlight is very small, it's up there pushing…all the time."

In his project description, Nye writes:

I invite you to come along on a cosmic journey with me by participating in a mission to sail a spacecraft, a tiny CubeSat no bigger than a breadbox, on beams of light. Imagine it: unlimited free energy from the Sun will provide CubeSats with propulsion and revolutionize access to space for low-cost citizen projects—projects like ours or by teams of students and faculty at universities. This means that spacecraft, especially small ones like CubeSats, won't have to carry heavy fuels into orbit, and that the acceleration will be continuous. Even better, this is a journey that is directly funded by the world's citizens, like you, rather than by governments. LightSail™ is truly "the people's spacecraft."

By midday Tuesday, just a few hours after the campaign launched, contributions from roughly 3,500 backers had helped pass the initial goal of $200,000 to support the "current construction of the LightSail spacecraft."

In the more than 40 days remaining, Nye and his team will aim for their "stretch goals":

$325,000 - Supports integration and testing through our partners at Ecliptic Enterprises, Georgia Tech, Cal Poly SLO, and Space Science.

$450,000 - Supports our orbital operations for up to four months - the time frame when we will actually demonstrate solar sailing.

$550,000 - Engages the scientific and engineering community, gathering and analyzing data to present at a symposium and publish the results in appropriate journals.

$1 million - Supports a public awareness and education program to spread knowledge about two revolutionary technologies—CubeSats and solar sailing—to ensure adoption by citizen space explorers around the world.

Astronomer Carl Sagan, one of the founders of the Planetary Society, discussed solar sailing with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1976. Nearly four decades later, his successors are poised to test the LightSail.