The Planetary Society, led by CEO Bill Nye, has decided to raise some money for space exploration through Kickstarter. The Lightsail project is testing a craft this month and next (May and June). But the real test will be a larger spacecraft launched in the fall of 2016.
I’m a big fan of Kickstarter. I’ve gotten a very few duds, most project I’ve supported has been amazing. I’ve contributed to a cat cafe (which will be a temporary home for adoptable cats) in my town, dozens of games, and some cool tech.
But this is really a huge deal. This is the dream of being able to travel the solar system without fuel. Sure, it’ll be slow… but who won the race? The tortoise or the hare?
A light sail is just that. A spaceship that is like a sailboat, but using light instead of wind to push it. Light (photons) have no mass, but they have a lot of energy, momentum, and there’s a lot of it in the solar system. Solar sails have to be big, to catch as much light as possible. They also have to be very low mass, because there’s not that much energy involved.
A solid rocket (like the shuttle solid rocket boosters) might fire for a few minutes generating 10,000,000 Newtons of thrust, providing a change in velocity of about 7 kilometers per second. A solar sail can fly indefinitely, generating a minuscule 9 Newtons per square kilometer (yes, square kilometer) of sail. But because it doesn’t ever have to stop thrusting, it can generate a change in velocity of over 40 kilometers per second (eventually).
As of this minute, the project has gotten almost double the original goal. But the real goal is a little over a million dollars.
If you have a couple of bucks, please consider supporting. There’s some neat swag (sadly, I don’t have ten grand for lunch with Bill Nye), but the real reason is to show the world that science is still important to people. More so than a guy who makes potato salad.