Planetary Radio • Jul 03, 2019

LightSail Takes Flight!

Please accept marketing-cookies to listen to this podcast.

Download MP3

On This Episode

20190515 john bellardo

John Bellardo

Director of the Polysat Lab, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Bruce betts portrait hq library

Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

Jason headshot sept 2020

Jason Davis

Senior Editor for The Planetary Society

Kaplan mat headshot 0114a print

Mat Kaplan

Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society

20190703 chris mclean

Chris McLean

Principal Investigator for Green Propellant Infusion Mission

20190611 bill nye profile cropped

Bill Nye

Chief Executive Officer for The Planetary Society

20190703 barbara plante

Barbara Plante

Founder and President for Boreal Space

20150630 dave spencer thumbnail

David Spencer

LightSail project manager and Mission System Manager for Mars Sample Return Campaign, NASA/JPL.

20190703 jill seubert

Jill Seubert

Deputy Principal Investigator for Deep Space Atomic Clock Project

A giant SpaceX Falcon Heavy lifted off in the early hours of June 25th. One week later, the LightSail 2 solar sail was released to begin its epic mission. You’ll join the thrilling launch, meet LightSail team members and leaders of other missions, and get a solar sail update in this very special episode. You’ll also get the chance to win an ISS Above system in the What’s Up space trivia contest!

Crowd watching the launch of LightSail 2
Crowd watching the launch of LightSail 2 The crowd watched in awe as LightSail 2 launched atop the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket during the STP-2 mission on 25 June 2019.Image: Navid Baraty / The Planetary Society
Liftoff of LightSail 2!
Liftoff of LightSail 2! SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, carrying LightSail 2 and 23 other spacecraft for the U.S. Air Force's STP-2 mission, lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on 25 June 2019 at 02:30 EDT (06:30 UTC).Image: NASA / Joel Kowsky
LightSail 2 launch nebula
LightSail 2 launch nebula A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket puts on a light show in the upper atmosphere following booster separation on 25 June 2019. The rocket, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, carried LightSail 2 and 23 other spacecraft for the U.S. Air Force's STP-2 mission.Image: Josh Spradling

This week's question:

What are the four formal tracking station locations for LightSail 2? Latitude and longitude not required!

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, July 10th at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

What does the label of the Mini-DVD on LightSail 2 say? It contains the names of all Planetary Society members and others, along with selfies.


The answer will be revealed next week.

Question from the June 6 space trivia contest:

From what type of spacecraft will the six COSMIC-2 spacecraft launching with LightSail 2 draw their signals from in order to study the Earth’s atmosphere?


The six COSMIC-2 satellites will rely on occultation of signals from GPS satellites to investigate Earth’s atmosphere.


Transcribed by Planetary Society volunteer Jake Bathman:

[Crowd]: 5... 4... 3... 2... 1...

[Bill Nye]: Yes, ignition! Can you feel the light way over here? Go LightSail!

[Mat Kaplan]: LightSail 2 takes flight this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome, I'm Mat Kaplan of the Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Wow, LightSail 2 is now flying free more than 700 kilometers above our world. It is talking with the controllers who have begun a week of tests and trials before our little solar sail spreads its wings. We'll get a full report from LightSail program manager Bruce Betts when we get to this week's What's Up segment. First though, I'm going to do my best to draw you into the beginning of this [00:01:00] long-anticipated mission. I was standing next to Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye when the mighty Falcon Heavy lifted off at the Kennedy Space Center. But the tale begins hours earlier. Members of the Planetary Society Communications Team joined a hundred or so other journalists under the blazing Space Coast sun on the late morning of Monday, June 24th. We boarded buses with SpaceX guides and security personnel and headed toward the most historic launch pad on Earth. Our Digital Editor and embedded LightSail reporter Jason Davis was there. Jason, please tell people about this awesome location we're standing at.

[Jason Davis]: We are inside the perimeter fence of 39A, pad 39A where the Falcon Heavy rocket is already ready for launch tonight, and it's really cool. We're really close to it.

[Mat Kaplan]: Alright, this is radio, podcast, describe the view from here. What do you see?

[Jason Davis]: Yeah [00:02:00] so we're up on a little grassy knoll right now looking towards launch pad 39A. There's a big concrete rise coming out of the ground with grass all around it. And then the what's left of the old space shuttle structure, it's a big black tower with the now SpaceX's crew access arm on it, the little thing that the astronauts will walk on. Right next to it is the rocket. It's the triple core Falcon Heavy, two of the side boosters are dirty where they landed last year and the middle one is brand-new. And yeah, it's a really beautiful sight under a clear blue sky and it's hot too.

[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah, it is hot. And between here and the rocket, these snowy egrets. You'd think they'd have learned by now, this is not the place to be.

[Jason Davis]: Yeah, you would think. They're gonna, come 11:30 p.m. tonight here they're not going to be one of them wanting to hang around the rocket, that's for sure.

[Mat Kaplan]: Thank you, Jason.

[Jason Davis]: Thanks, Mat.

[Mat Kaplan]: Well, we were hoping for an 11:30 p.m. launch, the very beginning of the launch window. We soon learned that the [00:03:00] Falcon Heavy would not lift off till at least 2:30 a.m., if at all, but there was much to keep us busy till then including opportunities to talk with many of the men and women involved with the 23 other payloads on the big rocket. I want you to meet a couple of them before we get back to LightSail.

[Jill Seubert]: Sure. I'm Dr. Jill Seubert. I'm the Deputy Principal Investigator of the Deep Space Atomic Clock Technology Demonstration Mission. It's a mouthful.

[Mat Kaplan]: It is. I didn't know if we would run into anybody else here today who has as much to be excited about as we do but clearly you equal, maybe surpass us, I don't know.

[Jill Seubert]: Oh, I'm super excited. I have been working on this mission since 2011 when I first started at JPL and so it's been it's been a while. I've been waiting patiently.

[Mat Kaplan]: So I've been reading up on this atomic clock, the most accurate timepiece ever to go into space. Right?

[Jill Seubert]: It's the most stable timepiece to ever go into space. It's very very accurate, but it's the most stable [00:04:00] timepiece. That means that time doesn't drift away. So if I turn on my clock and I synchronize it with another clock, zero error to start, that clock won't drift away, won't gain or lose time.

[Mat Kaplan]: And because I love these kinds of numbers, how much over the course of X number of years might it drift?

[Jill Seubert]: It would take 10 million years to drift one second. Imagine if your alarm clock did that on your bedside table, you never had to reset it, you know?

[Mat Kaplan]: I'd never be able to claim that I overslept because the clock was off.

[Jill Seubert]: We're ruining that for you, yes.

[Mat Kaplan]: Why send an incredibly stable atomic clock into space?

[Jill Seubert]: So the point of this demonstration mission is to demonstrate this technology so that we can use it to navigate future spacecraft. Navigating through space your tracking a spacecraft, separates from your launch vehicle. You've got to guide it all the way to Mars or Jupiter or Saturn and the way that we track it throughout space is we measure how long it takes a radio signal to get to the spacecraft and back [00:05:00] again. But right now we have to measure that transit time on the ground because the only clocks that have the accuracy and stability to do that safely enough are big, they're the size of refrigerators. So yeah, you know, you can't really send a refrigerator out to Mars very easily. So we need to shrink that down and this, the Deep Space Atomic Clock Technology Demonstration Mission, has taken that refrigerator performance and shrunk it down to something that's like a toaster oven size. So now something that we can conceivably send on spacecraft.

[Mat Kaplan]: Jill Seubert of the Deep Space Atomic Clock Mission. If you want to do rocket science, you're going to need rocket propellant. That is unless your spacecraft is propelled By the light of the Sun, and some rocket propellant is very dangerous stuff. Not so much the propellant to be tested by another of the Falcon Heavy's 24 payloads.

[Chris McLean]: My name is Chris McLean. I work at Ball Aerospace and I am the Principal Investigator on NASA's technology demonstration mission, which is the [00:06:00] Green Propellant Infusion Mission. We put the moniker of green on it, which is great. It's a very low toxicity fuel. When you sit it a bench in an open beaker you don't smell it, it has no vapor pressure. Different hydrazine and and the monomethyl and NTO they're different because they will evolve immediately and get have reactions.

[Mat Kaplan]: Before you go on, I mean talk a little bit more about hydrazine, which is used as been used for decades, right, but it's nasty stuff?

[Chris McLean]: Well, you know, I've been working with hydrazine myself for 25 years it is it is a volatile as well as toxic propellant. And so if you spill some it's in the air gets everywhere it can cause we've had you know, energetic issues energetic issues meaning the stuff causes problems.

[Mat Kaplan]: That sounds like a euphemism.

[Chris McLean]: Energetic disassembly is what we used to call the term. But so essential when I look at the that fuel though, that is a absolute robust fuel that will never be replaced. When we look at green propellants again. We you know, you look at the in-space [00:07:00] propulsion technology area, you know, I've worked all from Hall thrusters to Arc Jets, which are augmented hydrazine and ammonia systems the dabbled a little bit in ion engines and that we have this green propellant and they all fit a certain mission capability, right? So when you study, you know, hey my mission mission is to do this type of delta v, this type of maneuver, this type of pointing. You will find a sweet spot for every fuel and they'll be some overlap in certain areas. One of the things about the AFM 315E.

[Mat Kaplan]: That's the propellant's official name? Right?

[Chris McLean]: Well, yeah, it was developed by the Airforce, AFM 315E, and there's a reason. We invented by a chemists called Tommy Hawkins who has since retired. I like to call it Tommy's Hot Sauce, but we haven't we haven't come up with an official name for it and it has a very low toxicity. The toxicity dose is similar to that of pharmaceutical medications you can get so you can imagine if you drank a cup of you know penicillin or whatever, I'm not sure it's exactly [00:08:00] equivalent, that's not going to be good for you. It's drinking a cup of this fuel is not can be good for you too, but it's assumed if you were a small exposure is not going to be harmful for you. But the the one of the beauties of this fuel is it's a monopropellant. Which means it catalytically decomposes inside the engine's reaction chamber.

[Mat Kaplan]: It doesn't need an oxidizer. It had saw it's an all-in-one. It's kind of like gunpowder.

[Chris McLean]: It's kind of like gunpowder. Well if I compare this to hydrazine, hydrazine is a single fluid the catalytic decomposes. AFM 315E actually is a blend repellents and it's almost a bipropellant blend in a single fluid and that's how we get some of the performance out of it. So back to this first back to the safety issue this stuff in order for it to hit the catalytic threshold for decomposition has to be about 350 degrees C, and hydrazine it can be a room temperature and have a catalytic reaction. So, you know, if you spill a little bit of hydrazine, it can react immediately you spill some of the stuff it just sits there. Like I've done a lot of propulsion technology demos in the last 25 years and what we were always [00:09:00] doing with those programs, arc jets, Hall thrusters, towels, was getting something up in orbit proving to the industry at hey now, we have a viable technology that's been demonstrated on orbit. We can use this technology because when somebody's going in there and they have a high-risk mission like a James Webb, they don't want to be doing something that doesn't have flight experience. So to me, that's one of the big parts of this program as just demonstrating that.

[Mat Kaplan]: That's Green Propellant Principal Investigator Chris McLean. More hours pass. I'm now waiting for another bus that will take us to the KSC Saturn V Center, the magnificent facility that houses a complete Saturn V rocket, still the largest ever built, and surrounds it with the finest Apollo Moon mission memorabilia and exhibits I've ever seen. Waiting with me is another key player in the creation of LightSail 2 John Bellardo of CalPoly San Luis Obispo, CubeSat research lab, we had that wonderful visit a couple of months ago. We [00:10:00] didn't break LightSail when you took it out of the pod a little bit for me and it's great to see you here. I'm not surprised.

[John Bellardo]: It's great to see you as well Matt.

[Mat Kaplan]: So when you showed me a cabinet as we were walking into your clean room up there in the lab you said, there were I mean there were a whole bunch of CubeSats in there in storage, and you said they were for a mission. Absolutely. Those were the CubeSats for the STB 2 mission that is about to launch here in hopefully three hours or so. We integrated a total of nine different peapods, right, one of which was LightSail, which is in proxima and so it actually wasn't in the cabinet when you either so there are 8 peapods in the cabinet and inside those eight peapods were eleven separate CubeSats.

[Mat Kaplan]: So 12 payloads, which is half of the 24 that are on this big rocket with which with any luck in not more than a couple of hours we're going to see lift off.

[John Bellardo]: Exactly. So all 12 of [00:11:00] those came to the Cal Poly clean room, the various spacecraft manufacturers either flew or shipped their CubeSats out and we helped put them in the dispensers, do the final test, make sure they're all good to fly and then we held onto them for you know, I'm going to make a few weeks while you were there you got to see them locked safely away. And then when it came time, they were shipped out to here, to the Cape to be integrated.

[Mat Kaplan]: Wasn't long ago that we had a LightSail 2 preview talk with my colleagues Jason Davis and Bruce Betts and Bruce talked about the communication network, how we will talk to and command LightSail to and he told us that's going to be directed from your facility.

[John Bellardo]: That's correct. So we've been operating I say sort of the current generation of satellite architecture since about 2015. We started overhauling our ground software to make it more flexible to be able to accommodate more than one tracking station [00:12:00] things like that. What they're referring to there is that we're going to basically be using the Cal Poly software which is already set up to be able to accommodate multiple stations is helps with having Purdue, Georgia Tech and Kauai Community College right provide some tracking support for LightSail 2 so they sort of seamlessly integrate. It also provides the ability to do some automation. So once we get past sort of the really critical events where we want a bunch of eyes on the data and we're just at the point where we're even potentially downloading pictures, things that you don't have to really have somebody awake at 3:00 in the morning to do, we can leverage some of the automation that you have in place to streamline the operations from that standpoint as well.

[Mat Kaplan]: Dave Spencer who is in the room with us here as we wait to take the bus out to where we're going to watch the launch. He's of course as you know, the LightSail Project Manager, he said no, he didn't feel bad about today about the launch. He'll be more anxious when the time comes for LightSail 2 to come out of Prox-1 one and deploy [00:13:00] its antenna, you're smiling, you feel the same?

[John Bellardo]: Yes, so and I'm smiling for a couple of reasons one at this point we have absolutely no control over what's going to happen. So it's not worth anyone's nerves worrying about it, right? So that's the first thing the second thing is that at this point. I've seen so many launches, and I've been involved in a number of them and you just sort of know what to expect and you don't get too worked up over this aspect of what's going on. When it comes to operations, I'm sure there will be a lot more anxiety and anxious moments and I'm sure your your listeners will be able to hear about it from you and read about it from Jason just like they did with LightSail 1.

[Mat Kaplan]: With any luck by the time they hear this, LightSail 2 will be out there and maybe not deployed but at least we'll know that it's on orbit where it's supposed to be.

[John Bellardo]: For sure.

[Mat Kaplan]: Thank you, John, and I'm glad to be able to share this with you tonight.

[John Bellardo]: Thank you, Mat. It's always fun.

[Mat Kaplan]: John Bellardo of the Cal Poly SLO CubeSat research lab. Our bus took us across the Open Fields And Beautiful [00:14:00] wetlands of the Kennedy Space Center that are teeming with life past, the imposing Vehicle Assembly Building that is being prepared for the Space Launch System rocket, finally pulling up in front of the Saturn V Center. We climb the steps to a conference room with a balcony that looked out on the launch pad four miles away. Here is where we would stay as the countdown clock ticked down to zero. Joining us was yet another of their principal of contributors on the LightSail team, a woman who is responsible for much of the software that would enable LightSail 2 to reach its goals.

[Barbara Plante]: I'm Barbara Plante and I'm President of Boreal Space. But I have been involved with the Planetary Society and the LightSail program since December of 2013. This is the culmination of that many years of work and I'm just really excited about being at the at the KSC tonight and hopefully we launch and we're off [00:15:00] on a another spectacular mission.

[Mat Kaplan]: You and I have talked a few times over the years. You also have been in on the the evolution of this spacecraft and I think especially what the software right and there were some substantial developments. There was a lot that had to happen before LightSail 1 and since LightSail 1, right?

[Barbara Plante]: That's correct. There was a pretty massive overhaul of the attitude control algorithm. Dave Spencer and I talked about making some improvements after the LightSail 1 mission and necessitated some overhaul of the flight software that glues the attitude control algorithm into the overall flight software. With that came a massive massive amount of testing of the sensors and the actuators on LightSail. We found issues with magnetometers that were reporting magnetic fields that were [00:16:00] impossible. So we had to go ahead and calibrate them. We've really plumbed the depths of the system. We understand it very well now. We've encountered three or four different operational readiness tests. We've walked through the launch procedure several times and I'm feeling very confident about our executing that nominal path. Whatever happens that's not nominal just like LightSail 1 we'll go back in and we'll we'll take it. We'll take it on and we'll figure out what to do.

[Mat Kaplan]: Were you also in on the addition of these sort of timer or clock functions that will cause the spacecraft to basically reboot if other things don't happen?

[Barbara Plante]: That was Alex Diaz and John Millardo. My major concern is with the attitude control system and that once it the system does reboot all of the nominal functions are [00:17:00] put back in place. Let's say if we are in the Z axis alignment mode and we reboot, we will reboot back into the Z axis alignment mode and not in 2D tumble or some other some other mode. So reinforcing the current state of the spacecraft after a reboot is really more my concern.

[Mat Kaplan]: We have a very specialized spacecraft. There aren't a whole lot of solar sail CubeSats out there, but is some of the software, work that has been done on LightSail, is this going to help other people who want to put small sats up above Earth and maybe beyond?

[Barbara Plante]: I certainly think that the software infrastructure that exists within LightSail can be propagated to other 3u, 6u CubeSats, and it might not be a bad idea to offer it out as something on GitHub or you know some proven on [00:18:00] orbit software that universities can use they don't have to reinvent the wheel and I think that would be a great legacy for LightSail.

[Mat Kaplan]: I've been told that the people from NASA's NEA Scout project Near-Earth Asteroid project, also a solar sail, have been staying in real close touch.

[Barbara Plante]: They have been. Certainly during LightSail 1, I was in really really close touch with the folks at Marshall and they were so so helpful and really right there asking questions and delivering information and and commenting on the different sensors that we had and what their experience was with those sensors. I think maybe will also benefit from some laser laser ranging activities. We've got those retroreflectors on LightSail and it would be really really great to bounce a laser off them once or twice [00:19:00] because it starts to make people think that something like Breakthrough Starshot is an is a real option. It's a real opportunity something that we can make happen in our lifetimes.

[Mat Kaplan]: And that could be a legacy that could take us to the stars.

[Barbara Plante]: I can't believe that such a project like like Breakthrough has actually manifested in my lifetime. It's so exciting and that's one of many reasons that I'm so so thrilled to have been working on on LightSail.

[Mat Kaplan]: Got a pretty good group up here waiting for the launch but not very many people just a handful of you who get to wear this polo shirt that says "Mission Team" with that that great mission patch. Sounds like it feels pretty good.

[Barbara Plante]: I feel very proud. It's very special to walk amongst these people. They represent various aspects of what's going on in the in the Planetary [00:20:00] Society, but there are a few of us today here that struggled through ORTs, operational readiness tests, and testing and coding. We have a pretty good bond. I see these people and I'm just I smile. I'm very I'm always so happy to see them. We are we're a very tight-knit team and I feel that I feel that success will be ours with LightSail 2.

[Mat Kaplan]: Thank you, Barbara. It's good to talk to you again.

[Barbara Plante]: My pleasure always, Mat.

[Mat Kaplan]: That was Barbara Plante of Boreal Space. More hours passed; the countdown continued. I took my place next to Bill Nye on that balcony. Below us and beside us were many more space fans anxiously awaiting a launch that could still be scrubbed at any moment. It was approaching 2:30 in the morning when I started talking with Bill only to be surprised by the appearance of a [00:21:00] small green life form that had somehow made it to our balcony high above the ground. We're minutes away from really what's the start of a mission, but that has been years in coming.

[Bill Nye]: That's exactly right, Dr. Kaplan. Yes, we've been... I've been messing with this as the CEO my entire tenure at nine years I've been working on this, and as a board member certainly since 2000, 1999, we've been dealing with this and so...

[Mat Kaplan]: Woah. Is that a frog?

[Bill Nye]: So there's a there amphibians of making their way up here on the balcony. We're three stories off the ground and a frog jumped up on people and there's some frog handlers we seem to be having an enjoyable interaction.

[Mat Kaplan]: Life finds a way.

[Bill Nye]: Well, you know the frog's excited about the [00:22:00] launch like everybody else.

[Mat Kaplan]: That was an unexpected interloper as we are at, let's see, T-14 minutes and counting.

[Bill Nye]: Might be 13. Yeah, so we're we're on the balcony at the Saturn V Center and we have an excellent view. Another thing that just adds to the scene is the Moon has risen. I'd say estimating it's what... 22, 15 degrees above the horizon and it just adds to the drama from our vantage point. It's rocket in the lower-left, Moon in the upper-right, it's just spectacular. And with binoculars... well now with the naked eye you can see the venting on the left side of the rocket, from where we're standing and that's the gas above the cryogenic, the very very cold, liquid oxygen. So it's just exciting time and it's going to be something else. 27 engines all that at the same time [00:23:00] carrying this way the heck up into the sky.

[Mat Kaplan]: As you look below us here, I mean I can see hundreds of people from our vantage point, but I imagine there are thousands maybe tens of thousands up and down the coast and what this says about the excitement that can still be generated by an event like this.

[Bill Nye]: Well, you say still but maybe more than ever because everybody's rooting for SpaceX and Blue Origin and private companies who are accomplishing these remarkable things with a vision, we're going to reuse the cores or the boosters in an effort to save cost, in an effort to have more launches, get more spacecraft on orbit. And then goal is to assemble things on orbit and then go farther and deeper into space; Mars, Europa, other extraordinary destinations, and so we're part of this and the solar sail is this innovative type [00:24:00] of propulsion using nothing but sunlight and we're I'm very hopeful that it's going to work we've had four years to refine the software and make sure the hardware works well. We got the momentum wheel to tack just like a sailboat. The analogy is almost perfect where the solar sail spacecraft tacks like a sailboat in the wind, it's really amazing. And for people unfamiliar, there is the solar wind which is charged particles which stream off of stars like our Sun, but that's about a hundredth of the momentum of the light itself. So it's really all about photons, its relativity. It's... photons have no rest mass but they still are pure energy and they have momentum. It's amazing, the whole thing's amazing. It's going to be very exciting.

[Mat Kaplan]: Moments to go. What you're about to hear is my only slightly compressed recording of what unfolded before us. I think it's one of the most exciting and [00:25:00] dramatic pieces of audio I've ever been able to present on Planetary Radio. It's not just the launch that you'll witness, but the return of the Falcon Heavy's two side boosters. Here we go.

[Bill Nye]: It's because of you also thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.

[Mat Kaplan]: So they just turned out the lights below us here, where people are on the grass.

[Bill Nye]: Yes, the just turn out the light so our view is so much better, the lights below us. So now the pad 39A is lit up very very easy for us to see here on the Saturn V viewing building and you can feel that little bit of a hush little, bit of a hush, and so down on the monitor below us will have speed [00:26:00] of light countdown. We won't we won't have a delay. So that'll be really good. And you guys it's it's for Bruce and it's for Lou Friedman, none of us would be here without Lou Friedman. He wrote... he literally wrote the book, and Bruce Murray believed in this thing from the get-go.

[Announcer]: ... go for launch.

[Crowd]: [cheering]

[Bill Nye]: Go for launch. So there's all sorts of automated things that have to go in sequence. We'll all do this together I'm sure, here we go.

[Bill Nye]: 8... 7... 6...

[Crowd]: 5... 4... 3... 2... 1...

[Bill Nye]: Yes! Ignition! Woo! Can you feel the light way over here!? Go LightSail! Go LightSail! Oh, man, it's beautiful. And [00:27:00] the sky has a haze and it's just glowing. Look at this. Woo! Go LightSail. Passing the Moon. And now the sound will reach us just now, four miles away. I feel it. Wow. Feel it. Go LightSail! Wow. They're oxidizing! Higher and higher, it's just going perfectly. It's going... even from here, you can see the three cores, the three separate groups of engines. Oh man. And those are the diamond shocks, the puh-puh-puh-puh-puh. Wow, fantastic. Everything's [00:28:00] going just perfectly. Look at that. We're gonna make it, you guys! You can see the smoke trails. Wow, look at the ring of smoke. So everybody, stay tuned you're going to see the the flames from the boosters coming down. It's just amazing. There they are, oh there they are look at that. And now... now in a few seconds, there'll be the sonic booms going through all this atmosphere to us. It's amazing. Oh man. There they are, see it's separating? Even from here you [00:29:00] can see it. Wow! Nicely done, SpaceX.

[Unknown]: What's happening exactly, right there?

[Bill Nye]: The two boosters are coming off the center. I mean at night, it's just so... it's striking, it's just amazing. It's a magical. So, I'm the CEO. We... I've been messing with this since the little before I took over, getting finances squared away and seven million dollars funded by fifty thousand supporters around the world and we are on our way. So gratifying. I can just... can you still see? I can just still see it, way down range. Can you see it, Mat?

[Mat Kaplan]: Yes, barely. [00:30:00]

[Bill Nye]: Just barely, yeah. There's a lot of light from the SpaceX video and the Moon and we have this safety lights up here, but... I can't see it now, can you?

[Mat Kaplan]: No.

[Bill Nye]: I just... it's going...

[Mat Kaplan]: So the rocket would be enough, but with everything else involved, the citizen science elements, the fact that it's a private company, the fact that a government, a nation is also behind this, I mean it...

[Bill Nye]: Investing our intellect and treasure.

[Mat Kaplan]: You say humanity at its best.

[Bill Nye]: It really is. We solved problems that have never been solved before, we learn more about the cosmos and our place within it, and we work our way to answering those two deep questions: Where did we come from? Where did we all come from?And are we alone in the cosmos? Are we alone? This is part of answering those questions. [00:31:00] So I'm starting... my vision's relaxed enough now I'm starting to see stars in the background, but pretty soon we hope to see the flames of the boosters. Can you...

[Mat Kaplan]: And the Moon just hangs there serenely.

[Bill Nye]: I know, like it has nothing better to do. But it's.... There! There they are! Wow! Wow, there... there're two of them! And you can see the clusters of engines. Nicely done, SpaceX! So then they coast for a little bit and they light the engines again, and I say coast, they're falling from from the sky. Miles up, kilometers up. This is rocket science [00:32:00] people. Yes, a glimmer. Yes. Yes.

[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah. Yeah.

[Bill Nye]: Yes.

[Mat Kaplan]: There it is.

[Bill Nye]: Yes, there, yes! There's two of them. Yes! Yes! Wow, we have a great position here. Wow, we can see it all the way... wow! And then watch the monitor everybody look at the monitor for the completion. The orange glow in the distance. And now we see the final few meters on the... wow. Nicely done. Everyone, I want to thank you all for your support. This is your... thank you so much. [00:33:00] The sonic boom seconds after landing. It's almost 12 US miles away, 16, 17 kilometers away, and it took that long for the sound to reach us. That is just spectacular. So much energy, so much power delivered in such a short time to put our spacecraft, with the others, on orbit. My goodness. Thank you all so much. Thanks for coming from Austria, you crazy kids.

[Mat Kaplan]: Minutes later as we were almost literally still basking in the golden glow of that glorious launch, I saw Planetary Society board member Robert Picardo talking with LightSail Project and Mission Manager Dave Spencer. You'll hear Bob before I talk with Dave. [00:34:00]

[Robert Picardo]: That was pretty exciting. I've never seen anything like it, and the sound, there was something I've never heard before. I just... you can't, mean people describe the sound...

[David Spencer]: You could feel the pressure against your chest.

[Robert Picardo]: Yeah. I was just... exciting. I'm really happy to be here. My first launch, it will not be my last.

[Mat Kaplan]: You got a spacecraft if not in orbit almost in orbit.

[David Spencer]: Can't wait, can't wait. So yeah in about an hour, Prox-1 is going to separate from the launch vehicle upper stage. It's gonna float freely in space for a week and then LightSail will be ejected from Prox-1 exactly seven days after the time that Prox-1 turns on, and that's when we really got to work. That's when we look for the radio signal from LightSail. That's nervous time for me. This is fun. That's work.

[Mat Kaplan]: Not just... I mean it was fun, but pretty damn thrilling.

[David Spencer]: Oh it is thrilling, just an amazing sight and just an amazing feeling I mean it's just... [00:35:00] the noise, the power, and the this night launch. I mean just the brightness is just overwhelming, lights up the whole sky, so it was fantastic experience. Really happy to be here and it's great to be here with all these supporters of the Planetary Society.

[Mat Kaplan]: We'll be checking in.

[David Spencer]: Okay, thanks, Mat.

[Mat Kaplan]: Bob Picardo and Dave Spencer. It was now nearing 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 25th. Most of us had been awake for nearly 24 hours, but you wouldn't have been able to tell from the still electric enthusiasm in the room. People had come from all over the world to witness this launch and celebrate LightSail. My last conversation of the morning was with a couple who had come farther than almost anyone else.

[Gerald]: I'm Gerald from Vienna, Austria.

[Isabel]: I'm Isabel Calhoun from Austria. Vienna.

[Mat Kaplan]: And when did you decide to make this trip?
[Isabel]: Um, five? Four days, yeah?

[Mat Kaplan]: Was it worth it? [00:36:00]

[Gerald]: A thousand times. It's like, it was so amazing.

[Isabel]: Yeah, we'll do it again. Oh my God.

[Gerald] Yeah, in a heartbeat.

[Mat Kaplan]: Describe what you saw.

[Isabel]: Light. It was so bright.

[Gerald]: It was just perfect. I mean like the Moon was there perfectly, top right side of the launch complex and then just the boosters... I mean the Falcon Heavy at night, like three boosters two of them coming back like the flashes. I mean, actually I learned something next time I'll bring sunglasses for the start in the beginning because then you don't have a green spot in your eye for the rest of the flight.

[Mat Kaplan]: So there'll be a next time? Do you feel that way too?

[Isabel]: Of course, we'll do it again.

[Mat Kaplan]: Thank you, folks. We were honored to have you with us.

[Gerald]: We are honored to be here.

[Isabel]: Thank you for having us.

[Gerald]: It was such a great opportunity. Yeah. [together] Go LightSail!

[Mat Kaplan]: My special coverage of the Falcon Heavy launch ends there, but this was merely the beginning for LightSail. Just over a week has passed as we record this. [00:37:00] It was with some anxiety that I got out of bed on the morning of Tuesday, July 2nd. I knew that perhaps the most critical moment in LightSail 2's journey should have taken place a few hours before. The news arrived in an email message from LightSail Program Manager Bruce Betts, who joins us now. Welcome, Bruce.

[Bruce Betts]: Thank you, Mat.

[Mat Kaplan]: Tell me what you put in that email. And and what is now also public across the net?

[Bruce Betts]: We received a signal from LightSail 2, so yay! So as you may have discussed on the show, LightSail 2 was inside the Georgia Tech Prox-1 spacecraft for one week and then popped out and booted up and deployed its antenna and we waited anxiously that that happened to occur while it was during a passover of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where I am right now and where our mission control is and we were able to... we weren't sure we'd get a [00:38:00] signal in that first pass but we did, so we know the spacecraft is deployed and antennas deployed and it's booted up and it's functioning and we'll be looking for more passes to get more spacecraft information. But the key thing is LightSail 2 is out and flying and we've got an operational spacecraft. Yay.

[Mat Kaplan]: Jason Davis, our colleague, said it's gone so well, he's waiting for the other shoe to drop. Shouldn't something have gone wrong by now? I mean is everything really couldn't be much better, right?

[Bruce Betts]: Everything's good so far. There's there's lots more but everything's good. And we've hopefully we've done an awful lot of testing of what we could test on the ground. So I'm hoping that pays off in flight.

[Mat Kaplan]: What is just ahead?

[Bruce Betts]: A few days of getting tracking passes information, checking out the help of the spacecraft, do running some tests on the momentum wheel and attitude control system, and then if all is good in a few [00:39:00] days we will deploy the solar panels that open up and then we'll do more testing including taking some pictures. Then if all is good we will deploy the solar sail and start into solar sailing mode.

[Mat Kaplan]: What will tell us that this has been a successful mission?

[Bruce Betts]: Our ultimate goal is to prove that we... in this small spacecraft we can shove a solar sail in there, deploy it, and do controlled solar sailing, and the way we will test that is by changing our orbit using only solar pressure. The key thing is tracking the orbit; that will be done in various ways including the Air Force just naturally tracking stuff in space and then also the international laser ranging service has agreed to shoot lasers and try to get the exact orbit even faster by reflecting them off the corner cubes the mirror reflectors we've included on the spacecraft. But one way or the other it'll it'll take days to weeks to [00:40:00] change the orbit enough to see it and to demonstrate that even if all goes well.

[Mat Kaplan]: So far so fantastic, you're going to be up there for a while, I hear.

[Bruce Betts]: Yeah, at least a week or two as we co-locate the team here in San Luis Obispo during the key events, and then we'll all go back to home institutions and do things electronically, but for now, we're we're we're up here.

[Mat Kaplan]: Tell us, other than LightSail, what's up in the night sky?

[Bruce Betts]: Well, 'til we get a sail out you're not going to be able to see LightSail, but what you can see is Jupiter looking quite stunning rising and it's already up in the East in the early evening, brighter than any star-like object up there. And Saturn is just about at opposition, so opposite side of the Earth from the Sun meaning it's going to be rising in the East around sunset and setting around sunrise looking yellowish. It's down below Jupiter in the sky. And we've also got a partial lunar eclipse on July [00:41:00] 16th. The eclipse will be visible from most of Europe, Africa, Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean. We move on to this week in space history, a lot of action particularly on July 4th in history. 1997, Pathfinder landed on Mars. 2005, Deep Impact slammed into a comet. 2016, Juno began orbiting Jupiter. And of course, in 1054 AD, the Crab Nebula, or the supernova that led to the Crab Nebula, was first observed.

[Mat Kaplan]: Big day.

[Bruce Betts]: We move on to Random Sapce Fact.

[Mat Kaplan]: That was sort of Central California cool.

[Bruce Betts]: [Central California cool] Heyyyy. It's all solar sail all the time right now. So our solar sail material is four-and-a-half micron thick, rather thin, mylar and to make sure it doesn't accidentally rip in some way we've got threads woven into it called rip stops that if hold [00:42:00] did start or ripped did stop or start, sorry, it would stop. So yay, way to ripstop.

[Mat Kaplan]: Just like my camping tent.

[Bruce Betts]: Exactly, that's where we took the idea from. Thank you, Mat.

[Mat Kaplan]: You're welcome.

[Bruce Betts]: All right, we move on to the trivia question and I asked you from what type of spacecraft will the Cosmic 2 set of spacecraft will launch with LightSail 2 receive signals from? Confusing perhaps question, but how do we do, Mat?

[Mat Kaplan]: It was a nice response. There are a bunch of these satellites that got launched along with LightSail. Six of the 24 payloads on that rocket. Chris Robson, who's an Australian listener to Planetary Radio, I'm glad you were able to go down there just recently to scout this out before Chris could win.

[Bruce Betts]: Yes. We didn't want an Australian winner until I'd been there. No, we've had them before but I went to New Zealand, Australia, and I just have [00:43:00] say before you get to the trivia contest: your sky's beautiful. I've never seen it before, it's gorgeousm and the places I was we saw a lot of good Milky Way, which of course we can see some of up here, but also got to for the first time see Alpha Centauri and the Southern Cross and all sorts of good stuff.

[Mat Kaplan]: Do you see the Magellanic Clouds?

[Bruce Betts]: No, I tried but they were lower down and in the foggy fuzz. Most days were cloudy. So no, that's that'll that'll be on a list for the future.

[Mat Kaplan]: I was lucky I did catch them that time I was down in Chile, but I'm... and we should say that this was a trip that you had planned months ago with your sons and didn't want to miss it. But here you are back at the center of action for the real action that's taking place with LightSail 2, right now.

[Bruce Betts]: Indeed. Now, back to the trivia contest.

[Mat Kaplan]: Chris Robson, that fellow in Australia, he submitted the answer, the correct [00:44:00] answer: GPS satellites. That's where the Cosmic 2 satellites are going to get their signals from as they a checkout, learn more about Earth's atmosphere. He goes... he's got that right doesn't he?

[Bruce Betts]: He does, it's very clever. So you got all these GPS satellites already transmitting. So these spacecraft look for the signals coming through the atmosphere. From that they can extract information about water vapor within, pressure and temperature with altitude.

[Mat Kaplan]: Occultation. Chris, you have won yourself a priceless Planetary Society kick asteroid rubber asteroid, a 200 point astronomy account, and really great book, an inspiring book, Heroes of the Space Age by Rod Pyle. Beautifully illustrated book. Congratulations, Chris. As you might expect we have some other stuff as well. Joseph Lad in Boulder City, Nevada. He says I visited Planetary HQ last month while in town for the [00:45:00] JPL open house. He caught a glimpse of the elusive Bruce Betts but was too timid to shout, Hey Bruce! I regret it to this day. Maybe next time.

[Bruce Betts]: Next time shout, Hey Bruce.

[Mat Kaplan]: Right in line with that from Bob Clane. Help help! I've been occulted by standing in the shadow of greater men than I, you and Bruce. Best wishes for a successful voyage of the starship LightSail 2. We got a lot of really nice thoughts and wishes on behalf of LightSail 2 and and our team, which you are a part of, Bruce.

[Bruce Betts]: That's so nice.

[Mat Kaplan]: Just one more. Dave Fairchild, our Poet Laureate, of course. Cosmic 2 will listen to some signals with finesse, that come from all those satellites we know as GPS, and with this occultation data, they will over here, we will learn a lot about our planet's atmosphere.

[Bruce Betts]: Nice.

[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah, I enjoyed. We are ready for the next one I think and [00:46:00] wait till you hear about the special prize.

[Bruce Betts]: Cool. Well, as I said, it's all LightSail all the time now. So tell me, I mean I already know but, but tell everyone what are the four formal tracking station locations for LightSail 2? Our four ground stations were using. Don't have to give latitude and longitude, just give locations of the facilities in some other way. Go to

[Mat Kaplan]: Should be easy to discover and you have a strong incentive to get us your answer by Wednesday, July 10th at 8:00 a.m. Pacific Time. Here's why: not only will you have a chance for a 200 point account, that worldwide network of telescopes including a bunch in the southern hemisphere because the base down there, but how about this: a special little donation from our good friend Liam Kennedy, the inventor of ISS [00:47:00] Above, this little device that you can hold in your hand. It's self-contained, but you can also plug it into a monitor and it actually tells you when the International Space Station is going to be flying over your head so you can run out and take a look. And it does much more. If you have the monitor, it has a great feed of all kinds of stuff from NASA all about the ISS and other stuff but now, wait, wait till you hear this. It is not just ISS Above, it will soon also be LightSail Above, because he is programming into it, Liam is, the orbital... what would you say? Coordinates... for LightSail 2. So that you'll also be able to, once those sails are deployed and you might be able to see it from Earth, even with the naked eye if we're lucky, you can go out and check it out. It's a great little device and I can tell you it's quite a nice package. If you don't want to wait to see if you can win one, you can also go [00:48:00] to, and if you use the word LightSail as a promo code Liam will give you 10% off. That'll be our big grand prize, LightSail-related, for this brand new contest. I'd normally say it's time to go Bruce, but would you say a word or two about some other good news that we got just in the last few days about PlanetVac? Yeah, so it's a bit a big week for a Planetary Society projects the Honeybee Robotics project PlanetVac, which we've funded different aspects of and you've had radio shows about over the last few years, a surface sampling device and technique has been selected by NASA to fly to the Moon and sample some lunar regolith. So congratulations to Kris Zacny and Honeybee Robotics and congratulations to all of the Planetary Society members and donors who [00:49:00] made this happen.

[Mat Kaplan]: So go PlanetVac and go LightSail. Now we're done.

[Bruce Betts]: All right, everybody go out there. Look up the night sky and think about what your favorite time zone is. I have no idea which one I'm in right now. Thank you and good night.

[Mat Kaplan]: It's whatever one I'm in at the moment. And that's the same one that Bruce Betts is in right now. He is the Chief Scientist of the Planetary Society, checking in with us from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where they will shortly be doing much more with LightSail 2 including the unfurling of its big silvery sales. You probably know this but you can get LightSail 2 updates from the society's Twitter feed, @ExplorePlanets, and you can keep an eye on where we've got tons of great stuff about the mission. Lastly, you can hear our special mission briefing for members who came to Florida for the launch. It was as much a celebration as a briefing featuring Bill Nye and yours truly [00:50:00] as MC. It's on this week's show page that you'll find at Planetary Radio is produced by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California and is made possible by our LightSailing members. MaryLiz Bender is our Associate Producer. Josh Doyle composed our theme which was arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. I'm Mat Kaplan, go LightSail!