Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson explain why you should support solar sailing

The Planetary Society gets ready to launch its LightSail -- which travels via photon bombardment -- with the help of a Kickstarter campaign.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

Inspiring words from an inspiring guy. The Planetary Society

As I reported earlier this year, The Planetary Society is soon planning to explore the heavens with a unique and lightweight solar sail called LightSail. While the Society -- which is the world's largest nonprofit space advocacy group -- had originally raised enough funds from private contributors to develop LightSail, it's now turning to the public again and asking for help to take things to the next level through a just-launched Kickstarter campaign.

Without a doubt, one of the best parts of the new campaign is getting to see Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye and board member Neil deGrasse Tyson together in one video explaining the project (see below).

Tyson plays straight man to Nye's goofy delivery -- except when the "Cosmos" host says that he'd like to see LightSail make it to Pluto because he feels bad having had a hand in downgrading Pluto's planetary status.

The Kickstarter campaign explains that the cost for the successful deployment of LightSail is $5.45 million, of which $4.25 million has been raised. That leaves another $1.2 million (about £766,000, AU$1.5 million) in needed funds.

"We don't expect to get this all from one source at one time, but you can put us on the trajectory to launching in 2016," says the Kickstarter page. "We are setting an ambitious Kickstarter goal of $200,000, with stretch goals that take us all the way up to the $1 million mark. These goals will take us from 1) spacecraft construction, integration and testing; 2) through orbital operations (actual solar sailing!); 3) to data collection, analysis and publication of results; and 4) a slew of public awareness and education activities to make sure solar sailing is widely noticed and adopted."

Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye holding the LightSail. The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society clearly has enough cash to keep the LightSail project moving forward. In just about a week -- on May 20 -- it plans to launch a test flight of LightSail into low-Earth orbit.

The LightSail, which consists of a lightweight CubeSat satellite module and a large mylar sail, will be hitching a ride on an Atlas V rocket out of Cape Canaveral in Florida. Those interested will be able to watch the event on the LightSail microsite here.

The flight is sponsored by NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program, which helps CubeSat operators find free rides to orbit. The mission will last about 28 days and will test the deployment of the sail, which the team hopes to capture pictures of via two onboard cameras that will snap 32 pictures each.

Originally popularized in part by Carl Sagan, solar sails move through the vacuum of space through force of photons. Unlike solar vehicles, which convert the sun's light to electricity, solar sails spread their wings and get pushed by the bombardment of photons -- bundles of light energy that move at a constant speed in space.

If you think that sounds as fascinating as it is, and want to get in on the action, there are rewards aplenty, starting from a pin and a sticker and "your name sent into space" for $15 (about £9, AU$19) or a cool-looking patch for $20 (about £13, AU$25) up through other rewards like a limited-edition LightSail poster signed by the folks making it all happen for $100 (about £65, AU$125) and topping out at $10,000 (about £6,370, AU$12,530) for VIP status that includes lunch with Nye. Rewards ship "anywhere in the world."

The campaign concludes on June 26, so you could even watch the launch first, decide what you think about it all and then jump aboard.