CubeSats are tiny, low-cost satellites that have opened up new avenues of space research for universities and small organizations.
In order for CubeSat applications to reach the next level, the miniature satellites need a reliable form of propulsion for orbital maneuvers and trips beyond our planet. This is where solar sailing—transferring the momentum of photons to a large reflective sail—comes in. The technology was successfully used by Japan’s IKAROS mission in 2010, and NASA’s NanoSail-D test-deployed a CubeSat solar sail in Earth orbit later that year.
In 2016, The Planetary Society’s LightSail program will take the technology a step further. LightSail-1 will attempt to demonstrate controlled solar sailing—flight by light—for CubeSats.
On February 6, 2018, I found myself shoulder to shoulder with two of my heroes: Bill Nye on the left, Buzz Aldrin on the right. Our eyes were fixed on the first vertical Falcon Heavy rocket. Figuring the world's most powerful rocket might send me flying backwards once the countdown hit zero, I gripped the railing so tightly I started to lose the feeling in my fingertips.