Bill Nye celebrates his 61st birthday today, kicking off the start of what is sure to be an exciting year for the bow tie-wearing scientific icon.

Nye is best known as “The Science Guy,” thanks to his hit 1993 television show, which conveyed the science of everyday things to viewers with a bit of humor on the side. However, before he became one of the most beloved science icons, he was like a lot of us: a student eager to learn about the secrets of the universe.

Before he donned the iconic blue lab coat and signature bow tie, he attended Cornell, studying astronomy under the late Carl Sagan. Under Sagan’s tutelage, Nye became enthralled with the cosmos and ultimately followed in the footsteps of his close friend and former professor, assuming the role of CEO of the Planetary Society. Nye officially stepped into the position in 2010 and has been busy spearheading the organization’s efforts to inspire people around the world to get involved in space exploration ever since.

Today, the non-profit is the world’s largest and most influential public space organization. Its directives include the search for potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroids, the search for life beyond Earth, advocating for increased funding in the sciences, and launching its very own solar-sailing spacecraft: LightSail 2.

Even before he helped create the Planetary Society (TPS), Carl Sagan had a dream — that humanity would one day traverse the cosmos on a wave of light (aka photons) streaming from the sun. This type of revolutionary spacecraft would harness the power of the sun — via a solar sail — to propel itself to destinations across the vast expanse of space.

LightSail-2 unfurls its solar sails during testing.
LightSail-2 unfurls its solar sails during testing. 

Forty years later, Nye and the Planetary Society are carrying out that vision with their LightSail project. The first iteration — a small satellite, no larger than a loaf of bread — launched in May of 2015, and featured a large 32-square-meter Mylar sail attached to the small satellite. The mission didn’t go quite as planned, as it experienced some electrical and communications glitches. However, the small craft deployed its silvery sails, and beamed back some epic selfies before ultimately disintegrating in the Earth’s atmosphere.

A view from LightSail 1.
A view from LightSail 1.

Next year, the second iteration of the tiny spacecraft is set to launch atop SpaceX’s new heavy-lift vehicle — the Falcon Heavy — and will conduct the first controlled solar sail flight in Earth orbit. In a flight test earlier this year, LightSail 2 proved it was able to successfully deploy its antenna and solar panels, unfurl its 344-square-foot solar sails, and communicate with ground stations, with only a few minor glitches. This proved that the craft was almost ready for launch, which is slated for the second half of 2017.

To say Bill Nye is a science rockstar is a bit of an understatement. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting Bill or attending one of his talks, then you have witnessed it first hand. The energy and enthusiasm he has for science is infectious and follows him wherever he goes.

Nye is hoping the same enthusiasm and love for his first show will transfer over to his new talk show, Bill Nye Saves the World, which will be broadcast on Netflix beginning in spring 2017. The show will feature Nye’s frank take on important issues in science, like vaccinations, GMO foods, and climate change as well as special guest appearances, allowing him to reach a new generation of viewers.

A view of Jupiter as seen by JunoCam.
A view of Jupiter as seen by JunoCam.

2016 was highly successful for both Nye and TPS, with LightSail 2 looking to be in great shape for launch, the JunoCam engaging people worldwide through its incredible images of the gas giant, and with the successful launch of the OSIRIS-REx mission. (TPS held a contest that ultimately named the mission’s target asteroid, Bennu). As it stands right now, 2017 looks to be another banner year for Nye as he prepares to complete his 62nd orbit around the sun.

Photos via The Planetary Society (1, 2, 3), SWRI