bill nye

I am Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, joined by our embedded reporter Jason Davis. We’re test-launching a solar sailing spacecraft next week. Ask Us Anything!

Hello everyone!

I am Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, joined by our embedded reporter Jason Davis. We’re test-launching a solar sailing spacecraft next week, and are happy to answer your questions about that (or really anything at all).

Victoria’s assisting us with getting started – Ask Us Anything!

A little bit about LightSail: it’s a citizen-funded solar sailing spacecraft brought to you by The Planetary Society. We’re hitching a ride aboard an Atlas V rocket to test LightSail on May 20th, followed by a full-fledged solar sailing demonstration in 2016.


Whats the best way to explain what you are doing to people? I have tried to explain the solar sail to a few friends/family and they all think I am making it up as they remember learning that light has no mass in school. How can we educate people about your project?

[Bill Nye] Photons (particles of light) have no momentum, but they are pure energy, and they have momentum. So, in the vacuum of space, we can design a very low mass spacecraft with a very large reflective area, and it will get a continuous push. Try this: E = mc**2. Divided both sides by c. You end up with an expression for momentum: “mc”. It’s not magic; it’s science.

Provided that the test is successful, what can we hope for in terms of long-term application of solar sails for space flight, and how would this work for flight outside of our solar system, should we reach that point?

[Bill Nye] In the Great Big Hugely Gigantic Picture, we could someday beam a laser from, say, the far side of the Moon and push a solar sail to Proxima Centuri. It’s an idea so crazy, it just might work. See you at the launch in a few hundred years.

What is your opinion on the supposed EM warp drive that NASA accidentally created?

[Bill Nye] Very, very skeptical. BTW, our LightSail™ spacecraft will launch on the same rocket with Air Force’s X37-b formerly secret spaceship. Coincidence?

What do you think of Tesla’s powerwall?

[Bill Nye] It’s a good idea. Energy storage is the key to humankind’s future. Tesla has repurposed their car batteries for home energy storage. I have 4 kilowatts of solar panels. With these batteries, I could keep my food cold for a few days off the grid. It’s a good start on a world changing idea.

What’s the coolest experiment I can do at home with my kids?

[Bill Nye] It depends how old they are. Use mirrors to redirect the infrared beam from a one of your remote controls. Beam on!

How possible would it be to solar power a bow tie?

[Bill Nye] Yes, I do it all the time. We don’t see things; we see light bouncing off of things. So whenever a bowtie is out in sunlight, its image is powered by the Sun. If you want to put small solar panels on a bowtie and spin a propellor on your head, well, knock yourself out.

So when you did that debate last year with that creationist in KY, you said you pulled over to the side of the road and picked up a fossil. …did you seriously just pull over in a random place and find that? If that’s true I’m sincerely jealous of your fossil finding abilities.

[Bill Nye] If you’re on route 65 or 71 watch for a cut, a place where crews have blasted a path through the limestone. Stop the car. Walk to the side of the road, and look around. Pick up a brick sized piece of rock. You’ll find the barnacle sized “small shellies.”

I am a fourth grade teacher to 26 planetary buffs! We want to know – what advice do you have for budding astrophysicists/ future planetary society members?

[Bill Nye] Learn that method: Observe, Hypothesize, Test, Compare what you expected to happen with what did happen. Then, I’m not kidding, start to have letters represent numbers. Science is based on measurements. Algebra is a key to your future. Science Rules!!

I’m graduating from Cornell in a little under two weeks. What should I make it a priority to do before I leave Ithaca?

[Bill Nye] Swim in the gorge one more time.

I saw your segment recently on “The Nightly Show” with Larry Wilmore. On it, you said that from a scientific standpoint, there’s no such thing as race, and what does in fact exist is better classified as tribalism. So my question is, would it behoove the human race to look at moral issues from a scientific perspective? Also, are there certain matters of moral relevance science shouldn’t attempt to wrangle?

[Bill Nye] O wouldn’t it be great, if everyone on Earth understood that we are, in fact, all one species. It feels like that would be a great step toward all of us getting along with each other. We are one species. It’s provable. It’s science.

As the CEO of the Planetary Society, I’m curious to know your future hopes for the organization? Future space club in 2142?

[Bill Nye] I believe the Society with its members and community can convince citizens of Earth to make sure we fund missions to look for signs of life on other worlds, especially Mars and Europa. Such a discovery would utterly change this world. Our LightSail™ launch next week is part of that big idea effort. Planetary Science Rules!

In your book, “Undeniable”, you expressed a great suspicion of GMOs, particularly in agriculture. To quote the chapter: “If you’re asking me, we should stop introducing genes from one species into another, while at the same time taking full advantage of our ability to understand the genome of any organism…” In an interview you just gave to the Huffington Post after a visit with Monsanto, you claimed this – “My take on it now is genetically modified food is actually, in general, — genetically modified plants, in general, — are not only not harmful, they’re actually a great benefit. However, you can’t just go planting enormous monocultures and killing everything and expect the ecosystems to take it” I’m glad that you’re taking an open-mind approach to this, but could you explain what exactly brought on the change in opinion? I’ve heard that you plan on revising your book, is that true?

[Bill Nye] I looked into it further. The key for me is the very, very rigorous programs to ensure ecosystem safety, specifically The Coordinated Framework with the Dept. of Agriculture. We can assay a genome 10 million 10EE*07 times faster than we used to. Wild.

Do you have any advice on what we should tell our family/friends if they continue to deny climate change as well as other scientific issues like evolution?

[Bill Nye] Ask them if they would trust people who denied a connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Climate change and humans causing it is scientifically a little better established than cigarettes and cancer.

As you probably know, Chipotle recently removed all Genetically Modified Ingredients from their food. Is this a setback when it comes to educating the public on the potential benefits of GMOs? Or is Chipotle’s decision valid, in that we should still be wary of GMOs?

[Bill Nye] Removing GMOs seems like a marketing idea. Let’s see if it works. If they can provide the quality that customers want at the price customers want, well, that’s the free market at work. Consumers may find that they prefer vegetables that have more flavor and more nutritional value from modified crops, in which case Chipotle may have to change back or get outcompeted. Also, if other companies are able to raise more food on less land, they may do an end-run around Chipotle’s marketing by showing that their crops actually have a lower environmental impact. Let’s all stay tuned.

What was one of the greatest engineering problems that you had to overcome when designing or creating the light sail?

[Jason Davis] This is an excellent question, but a better question would be: What challenges have we NOT had to overcome?

The biggest problem since I’ve been working for TPS was the radio. We kept frying amplifiers on the radio board, and getting very weak signals during testing. It was eventually traced to a short in one of the pins on the circuit board.

What do you think of Google’s driverless car? Do you think it’s a good step forward, or should we be focusing our efforts on other things?

[Bill Nye] I can imagine a future with cities having nothing but electric driverless cars. You’d call for an automated taxi from your wrist-held device. There would very few car wrecks, and cities would be quieter and cleaner. Those of us, who really want to drive, can party on out there on the open roads. Driverlessness will be more common than airplane autopilots.

Over the next 10-20 years could light sails perceivably be used for bigger payloads than CubeSats or would the Thrust/Weight ratio not be significant enough for it to be efficient?

[Jason Davis] They definitely could, providing you have a thin and large enough sail (on the order of miles of sail material). NASA was seriously considering this in the late 70s/early 80s to send a spacecraft to Halley’s Comet. Our co-founders, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, were a part of the project at JPL.

I wrote a story about this here, check it out:

Given that NASA had their “Sunjammer” project back in 2010 – 2013 and they ultimately abandoned it, why will this LightSail project be superior?

[Bill Nye] We believe we have solved the sail deployment problem. NASA’s Nanosail-D drag spacecraft deployed its sail, but only after about six weeks of mystery. It was probably hung up somehow mechanically, but after hundreds of orbits, heating and cooling shook it loose. NASA’s Sunjammer never gained the backing and funding it would have needed. Then, Sunjammer also is a Pokemon character, but I’m pretty sure that’s a separate problem.

What kind of capabilities does the software running on the lightsail craft have? Is it able to figure out tacking and angles on its own? Or are you sending it simple commands similar to how a radio controlled car or airplane here on earth would work? How did you test the lightsail manipulation systems (be they automated or human) in simulations? Can you add anything else about this lower level aspect of how the navigations of the craft is to work?

[Jason Davis] The software is Linux-based. I just recently learned that, providing we have a stable link, we can actually SSH into the spacecraft, which I find very cool.

The control sequences are automated. There are sun sensors that locate the sun and tack based on that.

In simulations, we use a LightSail clone called BenchSat — it’s an acrylic-mounted, deconstructed version of the flight unit. It even has a working motor for the sail deployment system that spins.

Do you have anything to give the benchsat’s sun sensors simulated data? or do you just shine a flashlight on them?

[Jason Davis] They pick up the lights in the room, actually!

I’m only familiar with the basics of the technology behind LightSail, so forgive me if this is a silly question, but what do you think are the long term applications of this sort of technology? Do you see it moving beyond powering CubeSats and moving on to even bigger uses?

[Jason Davis] The biggest advancement of LightSail is the CubeSat aspect — the ability to pack a 32-square-meter sail inside a spacecraft the size of a loaf of bread. CubeSats need propulsion to expand their capabilities in Earth orbit and beyond. Solar sailing is one possibility for that.

[Bill Nye] LightSail™will demonstrate that we can greatly reduce the cost of missons to other worlds in our Solar System, e.g. the Moon and Mars. It will be another step in democratizing space. It will enable more of us to learn more about what’s up up there.

How much does solar activity affects the performance of the sail? Is it a problem or is it just fine however the sun is behaving?

[Bill Nye] A noisome problem may arise, if solar activity renders the Earth’s atmosphere a little bigger. Sometimes the solar wind makes our atmosphere swell. If this happens next month, we may get dragged down sooner than we hope. Right now, the Sun seems just fine. All is cool, in this case literally.

What do You hope to acomplish with the first 2 launches of lightsail? Can solar sailing be realistically applied to moving large spacecraft?

[Jason Davis] For the first flight, launching May 20, we are only attempting to test out the sail deployment sequence, which will validate the ability to package and deploy a solar sail from a small spacecraft.

For the second flight in 2016, we’ll do the same, but fly high enough above the atmosphere to attempt true solar sailing. We’ll validate that by attempting to change the inclination of our orbit.

In theory, solar sailing can be applied to any spacecraft. The bigger and thinner the sail, the better performance you get.

How is direction changed in the sail? Is it thrusters, angle change or magic? My vote is magic. Also, is there a speed limit to the craft?

[Jason Davis] We have two ACS components for the 2016 flight: electromagnetic torque rods and a single momentum wheel (there isn’t a wheel on the 2015 craft). If you consider magnets magic (and I think the Insane Clown Posse does), then you’ll like torque rods. They produce electrical charges, turning them into magnets, which interact with Earth’s magnetic field to rotate the spacecraft.

Would they be sensitive enough to interact with the Suns magnetic field for interplanetary travel? or is that only viable in LEO or HEO?

[Jason Davis] That is an excellent question. I’ll go out on a limb and say it should be possible, providing you had accurate magnetometers that could read the local magnetic field and fire the torque rods accordingly.

How do you normally decompress after a stressful day?

[Bill Nye] What else? I do an AMA…

Why isn’t NASA investigating solar sails?

[Jason Davis] They are, and they’re watching LightSail closely. Check out NEA Scout and Lunar Flashlight — two CubeSat solar sails launching on the first flight of the Space Launch System.

What’s your favorite movie?

[Bill Nye] Ever changing. I still like Singin’ in the Rain. I loved Big Hero 6…

What is the maximum potential rate of acceleration of this first prototype solar sail? How does the ratio of size to acceleration potential factor in to why the current size was chosen, and how will it affect the decision to make sails of a particular size in future solar sails?

[Jason Davis] The original specifications were 0.06 mm per second2. Assuming you were in open space in constant sunlight:

In one month, that’s a speed change of 158 m/s, or 353 mph. In one year, that’s a speed increase of 1.9 km/s, or 4233 mph.

I’m not sure about the decisions behind the original design, but the limiting factor is how much sail we can pack into the CubeSat, and how much stress the deployment booms can handle without bowing significantly.

What are your expectations for extraterrestrial life?

[Bill Nye] We at the Planetary Society work very hard to keep NASA on track. If we were to discover evidence of life on Mars, it would change the world. We want to keep the sequence of missions in the queue. Once in a while, it seems they lose sight of that big picture. We also are working for a humans orbiting Mars mission in 2033. There has to be life farther and deeper in space. We could go next to Europa, where there’s twice as much seawater as we have on Earth.

I’m a grad student in astrophysics, and often get frustrated by the lack of general science literacy in adults. In your opinion, what is the best thing we can do, as scientists, to improve public science literacy?

[Jason Davis] First I’d ask you to consider whether you’re frustrated by a lack of science literacy, or by folks that inexplicably disregard scientific consensus.

More education won’t necessarily convince a climate change denier who is more deeply influenced by their peer group. There’s no clear cut remedy, but framing scientific topics in a way that connects with a person’s values is a good first step.

I had a journalism professor who would often read our story drafts and then say, “Why does my sweet Aunt Edna care?” The question would often leave us baffled. So, whenever you’re interacting with the public — be it speaking at a public event, or writing for a blog, whatever — try to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and ask why they should care, and take it from there.

We often think that just because we think something is cool, everyone else should find it cool, but that’s often not the case. Just ask my wife 🙂