Bill Nye, more than just an enthusiast on the TV, has gotten a group together – part of The Planetary Society – to test a solar sailer spacecraft next week:
LightSail™ is a citizen-funded project by The Planetary Society, the world’s largest non-profit space advocacy group. We’re sending two small spacecraft into Earth orbit carrying large, reflective sails measuring 32 square meters (344 square feet). Our first mission is a May 2015 test flight that will pave the way for a second, full-fledged solar sailing demonstration in 2016.
Solar sails use the sun’s energy as a method of propulsion—flight by light. Light is made of packets of energy called photons. While photons have no mass, a photon traveling as a packet of light has energy and momentum.
Solar sail spacecraft capture light momentum with large, lightweight mirrored surfaces—sails. As light reflects off a sail, most of its momentum is transferred, pushing on the sail. The resulting acceleration is small, but continuous. Unlike chemical rockets that provide short bursts of thrust, solar sails thrust continuously and can reach higher speeds over time.
They’re using a CubeSat to get their prototype into orbit, which will then unfold four triangular Mylar sails.
Three electromagnetic torque rods aboard LightSail will interact with Earth’s magnetic field, orienting the spacecraft. Ground-based lasers will measure the effect of sunlight on the sails. As LightSail breezes around the Earth, its shiny sails will be visible from the ground. We’ll organize viewing campaigns to show people where to look.
I heard about this on a reddit Q&A with Nye, but it’s also been covered on PhysOrg (which has a kinda cool video loop of the sails unfurling in a lab). The next step, in 2016, involves launching a much bigger craft in a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.