The tech was first pitched almost 40 years ago, and now solar sails are finally getting a legit test flight to prove they can (or can’t) be a viable option for deep space transportation.
Carl Sagan talked up solar sail technology on The Tonight Show back in 1976, and now The Planetary Society (headed up by Bill Nye) is prepping a $4.5 million mission to see if the tech can work in execution. Dubbed LightSail, the project basically works like a solar sailboat, harnessing solar radiation and photons to slowly power the small craft, building momentum.
The LightSail mission will send up a small, square CubeSat satellite that will open up to unfurl triangular Mylar sails that will be used to “ride” solar radiation. The first test mission is set to launch May 20. If all goes according to plan, another test flight is tentatively scheduled for April 2016.
If it works, it could be an insanely cheap propulsion method in the years to come. Researchers hope the solar sail technology will make for an affordable way for humans to explore our solar system. It's worth noting that NASA is also exploring the viability of solar sail tech. Give it a few decades, and this tech could power your vacation to Mars.
Check out a video breakdown of solar sail tech throughout the years below, featuring Bill Nye and Carl Sagan: