Who would’ve thought that what looks like a giant kite floating in space could have the potential to alter forever how we explore the cosmos?

Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress on Wednesday, Bill Nye, the science and sometimes elevator guy, introduced the solar-powered satellite Light Sail 2.

The crowdfunded satellite that takes the once dreamy sci-fi concept of a solar sail and makes it a reality. The Planetary Society, the organization behind the satellite, also revealed Tuesday this amazing animation of how it will look once SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket takes it into space.

The Planetary Society is a space exploration-focused nonprofit co-founded by Carl Sagan and now headed by Nye. Light Sail 2 follows an earlier model that spent three weeks in orbit in 2015, and it’s due to head into space sometime in 2018. Unlike the first LightSail model, this one will attempt the first controlled solar sail flight in Earth orbit.

Solar sailing spacecrafts are revolutionary in that they can be “pushed through space by the pressure of sunlight,” as Nye explained to That Startup Show. It’s a pretty revolutionary concept that seems to defy logic, since light itself doesn’t have any mass. But, as Nye explained, it’s actually possible because that light energy composed of particles that can push against the sail.

“It has momentum,” he said. “It’s pure energy. It’s a tiny force, but it’s continuous day or night — wait, there’s no night, it’s space!”

solar-sail-deployment
An animated rendering of the solar sail deploying its mylar sail.

While this particular ultra-lightweight and compact solar satellite is far too small to carry humans, there’s a ton of potential in its future applications and improvements. For instance, it has been proposed that these sails might someday be a prime candidate for interstellar travel because they don’t need to carry any fuel onboard, which massively cuts down on the kind of mass it needs to carry.

Beyond that, it’s also notable just what this kind of innovation means for the future of crowdfunded space exploration. Though some previous attempts at this have been unsuccessful (or even downright painful), this high-profile work by Nye and the Planetary Society is the best proof yet that space isn’t just the domain of governments or billion-dollar corporations. Space really is for everybody.


If you liked this article, check out this video on how light pollution affects the planet.