After a tense few days, Bill Nye's sunbeam-powered spacecraft LightSail is back in touch with Earth. About a week after its launch on May 20th, LightSail lost the ability to send data to the crew because of a software glitch. Efforts to reboot the spacecraft remotely failed, so the engineers hoped LightSail would perform a "natural reboot," which would occur if the spacecraft collided with stray charged particles.
In a statement released yesterday through his company Planetary Society, Nye said that's exactly what happened:
Our LightSail called home! It’s alive! Our LightSail spacecraft has rebooted itself, just as our engineers predicted. Everyone is delighted. We were ready for three more weeks of anxiety. In this meantime, the team has coded a software patch ready to upload. After we are confident in the data packets regarding our orbit, we will make decisions about uploading the patch and deploying our sails— and we’ll make those decisions very soon. This has been a rollercoaster for us down here on Earth, all the while our capable little spacecraft has been on orbit going about its business. In the coming two days, we will have more news, and I am hopeful now that it will be very good.
LightSail was inspired by Carl Sagan's idea of solar sailing, which imagined a spacecraft using the sun similar to the way a sailboat uses the wind. The craft is composed of a small satellite with four Mylar sails attached that allow LightSail to ride solar radiation. This month's test flight hopes to prove that LightSail can successfully unfurl its sails. If the test is successful, a second flight is planned for April of next year. The scientists behind the project hope to demonstrate that solar propulsion can eliminate the need for boosters or fuel reserves in spaceflight.
Correction, May 31st 1:26PM ET: An earlier version of this post named Bill Nye's company as the Planetary Group. It is actually the Planetary Society.
Verge Video: Space exploration is back