Bill Nye’s Crowd-Funded LightSail Has Lost Contact With Earth

Bill Nye’s Kickstart-funded LightSail project has been temporarily halted, after the prototype satellite experienced a computer malfunction during its lower Earth orbit. The solar sail spacecraft launched just last week, and was backed by The Planetary Society, Nye’s organization. The mission for the spacecraft was to use energy solely from the sun to power its motion through space. Currently, communication between the LightSail and Earth has stopped.

The LightSail’s original mission: an experiment for solar sails

Just last week, the LightSail was launched atop the Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral, in Florida. The solar sail aircraft included a CubeSat equipped with a 344-square-foot mylar sail, which served to detect invisible, accelerating particles expelled from the sun. The solar “wind” would theoretically and physically work like the wind at sea, where the boat’s sails are used to propel the ship forward. The solar sail would be “pushed” through space by the force of solar wind.

However, the primary goal of the mission was to see if the sails on the LightSail could successfully expand in space. The deployment of the sails was scheduled to happen much later, only after a series of data “chirps” were sent back consistently to Earth, indicating the position of the spacecraft and other important information. Flight controllers have received successful chirps for two consecutive days, but over the weekend, the satellite stopped sending signals.

What next for Bill Nye’s LightSail?

The scientists monitoring the solar sail’s behavior have deduced that the satellite’s Linux-based software system ultimately couldn’t contain the size of the data emitted by the chirps sent to Earth. The more beacons transferred via the chirps, the larger the file size would grow. When the file reaches a size of 32 megabytes, the flight system could have reached maximum capacity and crashed.

The team at the Planetary Society has to unfortunately put the LightSail mission on hold until they can fix this technical issue. Currently, scientists are hoping to reboot the system, by giving it commands every time the spacecraft passes a ground control station. They’re also hoping that charged particles in space will strike an electrical component on the LightSail and help “wake it up.” For the time being, it seems, the solar sail spacecraft remains frozen.

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