Bill Nye, Science Guy, Sets LightSail


The Planetary Society, with Bill Nye, succeeds with LightSail despite a number of setbacks.

You might have heard of Bill Nye. Super famous science guy known for getting kids all over the world excited about science? Well, check out his latest project: LightSail!


NASA might not be sending anyone into space any time soon, but other groups are taking up the slack and planning ahead. Part of that plan is finding new ways of fueling space travel.

Bill and his team at the Planetary Society, the nonprofit group behind the mission, launched LightSail on May 20th. LightSail employs a new way of zipping through space using photons from the sun that push against the spacecraft’s Mylar wings, propelling the spacecraft forward, just like ships use the wind to skim along the water’s surface. The sail is very thin, thinner even than human hair, and as large as a big bedroom. Scientists, including Carl Sagan, have wondered for decades if a light sail would work. Now we’re finding out.

Headlines about LightSail since its launch have included words like “setback” and “glitches” and “problems.” It has not been smooth sailing for LightSail. The spacecraft fell out of radio communications twice and refused to do what its engineers told it to.

But…on Monday, the group finally got hints, in the form of garbled images, that LightSail was doing its job, and on Tuesday a clear picture arrived. The first LightSail selfie!

This is a great story for a few reasons. First, Bill Nye is a good storyteller who knows how kids perceive the power of science. You can be sure the kids who watch his videos are going to be well-versed in the study of space travel. Second, it’s a fantastic example of how to deal with failure. Try, try again! Learn from your mistakes! Don’t take radio silence for an answer! Third, what’s more inspiring than discovering a new way of traversing the sky?

And even more exciting, those of us stuck here on Earth might catch a glimpse of this new technology. Are you on the map? Make a plan to try and see LightSail!

This version of LightSail is going to drop out of orbit within days, but another LightSail will be launched next year to a higher orbit so scientists can attempt controlled solar sailing. Maybe that attempt will go more smoothly. But even if it doesn’t, we’ll keep trying.