Bill Nye, left, and engineering dean Debra Larson

Tucked in a conference room of the Bonderson Engineering Project Center, Bill Nye fixed his bow tie — an early morning blue, patterned with little cumulus clouds  — and folded his hands on a table.

As the CEO of nonprofit space advocacy group The Planetary Society, Nye had come to Cal Poly on Monday to support the public testing of the organization’s newest project: a solar sailing spacecraft dubbed LightSail 2.  

The spacecraft itself is a small black box — about the size of a loaf of bread and weighing about 11 pounds. But once LightSail is launched into the atmosphere to orbit Earth, its silvery, mylar sails will unfurl from inside the spacecraft to about the size of a boxing ring, according to the organization’s website.

“It is so much like a Swiss watch inside because it’s Swiss,” Nye said. “The gear train is made in Switzerland. And there’s this crazy little motor that operates at very cold temperatures. And the motor spins — and I’m doing this from memory, sorry — to 180,000 revolutions to get the sails out.”  

The LightSail project was a collaboration between The Planetary Society, Cal Poly and the Georgia Institute of Technology, along with Stellar Exploration, Inc.; Ecliptic Enterprises Corp.; Boreal Space; Aquila Space; and NXTRAC, according to the website.

Cal Poly largely contributed to making LightSail’s CubeSats, miniature satellites that make up the structure of the spacecraft.

LightSail 1 had launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in May of last year, and gave engineers the opportunity to study how the solar sails would work. But the spacecraft wasn’t controlled. LightSail 2 will be the organization’s first attempt at controlled Earth-orbit solar sail flight, brought up into orbit by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, according to the website.

The first spacecraft also served as a learning experience for LightSail 2 to grow from.

“Mechanically, it’s cool,” Nye said. “I think the mechanical problems were solved a couple years ago. But the real issues, as so often is the case, was the software.”

This won’t be the first solar sailing spacecraft to be launched. In 2010, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) deployed its craft, IKAROS, which was able to travel as far as Venus, according to the agency’s website.

LightSail 2 is smaller than IKAROS, and will allow engineers to study solar sailing as a “limitless propulsion source,” according to Dave Spencer, project manager of LightSail 2 and a professor at Georgia Tech.

“The word you might use is ‘democratizing,’” Nye said. “We’re democratizing space. Because there’s no fuel, propulsion is free once you get into orbit.”

He added that the technology used in the project could potentially create a standard to make space travel relatively cheap and accessible for organizations “to go to all sorts of interesting and scientifically important destinations in the solar system … Our mission at The Planetary Society is to advance space science and space exploration. And we feel strongly that LightSail 2 will do that.

The project is currently running on schedule, according to Spencer. But one of the biggest threats to the project is the sail deployment.

“Every time that you deploy the sail and try to refold it, it doesn’t fold as nicely as it did the previous time,” he said.

It’s a little like trying to refold a paper map or a newspaper. New creases emerge no matter how nicely it gets refolded, and the potential for being torn grows.

As such, the sails aren’t tested often, and that leaves room for new problems to spring up, Spencer said. If everything continues to run smoothly, LightSail 2 could be in Florida and ready to be launched by March 2018.

Dean of the College of Engineering Debra Larson said she was excited to see Cal Poly take part in LightSail, particularly because it gives students an opportunity to hone their skills.

“We really love applied research,” she said. “So I think because of that commitment and that understanding of where our strengths are, that allows us to pick up projects like this and be able to nurture them.”

Nye said he was just as enthusiastic about the project: “It’s a space jet, come on.”

He added that the about $5.45 million project definitely hit some bumps along the way, but they’re still ready to move forward.

“Oh yes, we could have done better,” he said. “We were playing with the hand we were dealt … but that’s all — as we say in country music — ‘whiskey under the bridge.’ We’re going to fly now. And we’re very excited.”

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