Sailing on Sunbeams

Justin Foley, left, a system engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and computer science professor John Bellardo, right, pose with a life-sized photo of Jordi Puig-Suari, a retired Cal Poly professor who co-created the CubeSat.

Now that a mini-satellite prepared at Cal Poly has successfully propelled through space with solar power, Bill Nye the Science Guy has another cosmic goal – and this one is even farther out of this world.

“I would very much like to look for signs of life in my lifetime,” he said during a press conference Wednesday (July 31).

If that happens, Cal Poly will have played a significant role.

The press conference was arranged to announce that LightSail 2 – a mini-satellite, also known as “CubeSat” – had successfully raised its orbit in space solely on solar. LightSail 2, a project by Nye’s Planetary Society, was prepared with student assistance at Cal Poly’s College of Engineering, which also acted as mission control last week during the deployment of the CubeSat’s Mylar sail.

During the teleconference, Bruce Betts, LightSail 2 program manager, thanked computer science professor John Bellardo and PolySat systems engineer Michael Fernandez, a physics major, for their help on the project. But another Cal Poly figure proved instrumental in the feat: Jordi Puig-Suari, a retired aerospace engineering professor, co-created the CubeSat, which has greatly expanded space exploration – and allowed for the solar sail experiment to happen.

This image from the Planetary Society shows the LightSail 2’s Mylar sail.

When asked about the LightSail 2 success, Puig-Suari said the cost reductions afforded by the CubeSats were crucial.

“It is a huge score for CubeSats and for the team at Cal Poly,” he said, while crediting the Planetary Society for making it happen. “It is the beginning of a new way to travel in space.”

Nye said the crowdfunded project cost $7 million.

Puig-Suari created the CubeSats in 1999 with Stanford University professor Bob Twiggs as a way for students to become involved in designing spacecraft. But soon private companies, governments and more schools embraced CubeSats.

Puig-Suari is now sailing the world with his family – using boat sails instead of solar sails. But a reminder of his impact stood just a few feet from the Planetary scientists as they monitored the sail deployment at Cal Poly: The PolySat lab features a life-sized cut-out of Puig-Suari.

LightSail 2 is roughly the size of a loaf of bread. Yet it was still large enough to travel with an 18-foot sail powered by photons. Once the sail was deployed, navigation was performed autonomously with an on-board algorithm.

Previously, spacecraft had to travel with fuel – which eventually runs out, Nye noted. Solar powered spacecraft can continue much longer, paving the way for much further travel.

“For me it’s very romantic that you’d be sailing on sunbeams,” he said.

Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, hopes solar sails will help space exploration go farther in the galaxy — and beyond. (Photo: The Planetary Society)

Nye first learned of the concept from his former teacher and Planetary Society founder Carl Sagan in the 70s. This month, Sagan’s concept, which he described to Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” in 1976, was proven.

“The community spent decades talking about solar sailing as an academic exercise,” Puig-Suari said. “Carl Sagan would be proud!”

The Planetary Society has shared multiple images taken by LightSail 2.

When asked his dream for solar sailing, Nye said he wanted to discover if there were other life forms out there – be it on Mars, Saturn or Jupiter. Solar travel will also help identify potentially dangerous asteroids, he said.

Bellardo, who has been involved in the project since the early design phase of LightSail 1, which did a test run in 2015, said he’s also excited about the newfound possibilities. 

“Solar sailing excites me because it enables us to build small spacecraft that can explore our solar system,” said Bellardo, who was responsible for most of the LightSail 2 flight software, primary flight commanding, ground station infrastructure and general spacecraft operation support. “I’m hopeful that a price reduction is correlated with the size reduction, and that results in being able to send a greater number of satellites to all sorts of different destinations.”

In addition to Bellardo’s work, PolySat also assisted with environmental testing. manufacturing of the P-POD deployer, primary flight computer, and more, Bellardo said.

Puig-Suari said he’s proud of what his CubeSat work has led to.

“I am so happy with the results from LightSail 2,” he said. “It is a really big deal.”

The Cal Poly College of Engineering understands there has been an enormous amount of turmoil and transition due to Coronavirus (COVID-19). As we continue offering support to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, we also continue providing critical updates as well as college highlights. Ours is a college full of creative and bright engineers and staff. For more information on COVID-19 visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. For more information on how Cal Poly is responding to COVID-19, visit the Cal Poly Coronavirus website Coronavirus website.


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