'Sail Has Deployed!' on Bill Nye's LightSail Spacecraft

6-8-15 LightSail
When its solar sails are unfurled, LightSail may be visible to observers on the ground. Josh Spradling/The Planetary Society

Sunday brought a triumphant moment for the Planetary Society and its chief executive, Bill Nye "the science guy." At 3:47 p.m. ET, four Mylar sails that had been folded inside a small CubeSat (a miniature satellite) in low-Earth orbit began deploying to their full span of 344 square feet. It marked a significant step toward the society's eventual goal of using solar sailing as a less expensive, more accessible mode of space exploration.

The Planetary Society team sat around a table at the organization's Pasadena, California, headquarters, with Nye tuning in on a big screen via video chat, waiting for this latest development in their LightSail project. Cheers and applause erupted from the small group when word came that the motor had started up.

"That's so cool!" came Nye's voice through the screen. "So it didn't work on the first orbit. We tried it on the second orbit, and it worked!" He later asked one of the team members to come up and give him a virtual high-five via video chat.

The triumph comes after several hurdles since the LightSail's launch on May 20. The spacecraft, which weighs under 11 pounds, lost communication with Earth—twice—and the first attempt to release its sails failed. Nye wrote Sunday that the team was expecting photographs in 24 to 48 hours.

The LightSail uses the idea of solar sailing, leveraging the energy of the sun to propel a small spacecraft instead of traditional sources of fuel. It is hardly new in theory, and Planetary Society founders Bruce Murray, Louis Friedman and Carl Sagan began pursuing solar sailing years ago. Sagan even spoke about it with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1976. But Sunday marked the first time the society successfully deployed solar sails in practice.

"After 39 years of chasing this problem around as a student of professor Sagan and then as a board member and now as CEO, I'm just honored to know the team that produced this spacecraft and very grateful to our members and supporters who made it happen," Nye said. "This is a big day for the Planetary Society. We're advancing space science and exploration. This mission is part of our mission."

The LightSail's current orbit is just a test ahead of the primary mission, which is planned for the fall of 2016. At that time, the LightSail will catch a ride with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, which will release it with a Prox-1 spacecraft into orbit at nearly 450 miles above Earth. Then, "Prox-1 will gently eject LightSail into open space," where scientists will experiment with the technology on the "first controlled, Earth-orbit solar sail flight." (The current test is not considered controlled because it's not high up enough to escape atmospheric drag.)

The longer-term project is funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign launched May 12. With 17 days still left to go, the campaign has raised upward of $830,000, more than four times its initial goal of $200,000. The Planetary Society is now aiming for its last "stretch goal" of $1 million to additionally support "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."

One of Nye's Sunday updates to the Kickstarter campaign page pointed visitors to his Twitter feed. "Can you tell that I'm excited from my tweets?" he wrote.

Motor is running! Sail is Deploying!!! 39 Years after Prof. Sagan spoke of it!

— Bill Nye (@BillNye) June 7, 2015

Sail has Deployed!

— Bill Nye (@BillNye) June 7, 2015