Planetary Radio • Jun 22, 2022

Sail on! Bill Nye and others celebrate LightSail 2’s three years in space

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Sarah Al-Ahmed

Digital Community Manager for The Planetary Society

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

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Bill Nye

Chief Executive Officer for The Planetary Society

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Rae Paoletta

Editorial Director for The Planetary Society

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Jennifer Vaughn

Chief Operating Officer for The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 rocketed into orbit three years ago. Society CEO Bill Nye, chief operating officer Jennifer Vaughn, and LightSail program manager Bruce Betts join Mat Kaplan for a look at the long road to this award-winning mission, the current status of the spacecraft, and what’s ahead. Society editorial director Rae Paoletta provides a sneak peek at the June Solstice edition of The Planetary Report, and digital community manager Sarah Al-Ahmed shares highlights of the just-completed meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Take your shot at winning Bruce’s new book about the solar system in this week’s What’s Up segment.

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
LightSail 2 Spreads its Wings and Begins to Fly
LightSail 2 Spreads its Wings and Begins to Fly On 23 July 2019, flight controllers at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California commanded LightSail 2 to deploy its 32-square-meter sail. These images capture the deployment sequence as seen from one of the spacecraft’s 185-degree fisheye cameras. The view of Earth shows Baja California and part of Mexico. LightSail 2 is expected to continue to send back images as it orbits Earth until it reenters the atmosphere in approximately 1 year.Image: The Planetary Society
LightSail 2 image of Mediterranean and the Red Sea
LightSail 2 image of Mediterranean and the Red Sea This image taken by The Planetary Society's LightSail 2 spacecraft on Feb. 27, 2021 shows the Red Sea, Nile River, the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and surrounding areas. North is approximately at top right. A piece of fishing line-like material called Spectraline that held the spacecraft’s solar panels closed prior to sail deployment can be seen in the upper right and left. This image has been color-adjusted and some distortion from the camera’s 180-degree fisheye lens has been removed.Image: The Planetary Society

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Sailing the Light Sailing the Light tells the story of the LightSail mission, a crowdfunded space science project from The Planetary Society.Video: The Planetary Society

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Trivia Contest

This Week’s Question:

How many torque rods, also known as magnetotorquers, does LightSail 2 have?

This Week’s Prize:

A signed copy of Bruce Betts’ new book “Solar System Reference for Teens.”

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, June 29 at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

Who was the first woman to fly in space twice?


The winner will be revealed next week.

Question from the June 8, 2022 space trivia contest:

What unofficial, but common, name for a type of feature on Venus sounds like it would be delicious for breakfast?


The unofficial name for the features on Venus formally known as farra that sound like they’d be delicious for breakfast? Pancake domes.


Mat Kaplan: Sail on. Bill Nye and others celebrate LightSail 2's third anniversary in space this week on Planetary Radio.

Mat Kaplan: Welcome. I'm Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Is LightSail 2 over your head right now? It's possible, so long as you're not too far north or south. No one thought The Planetary Society's little cubesat with the shimmering sail would still be around over a thousand days after it rode into orbit on a SpaceX Falcon heavy booster. And yet there it is, still sending back gorgeous images of our world and teaching us how to sail around a planet on the light of the sun. We'll celebrate with society's CEO, Bill Nye, Chief Operating Officer, Jennifer Vaughn, and LightSail Program Manager, Bruce Betts. Of course, Bruce will also return for What's Up with a prize that is near and dear. We'll also hear from Digital Community Manager Sarah Al-Ahmed. Sarah is just back from the meeting of the American Astronomical Society. And Editorial Director Rae Paoletta will give us a preview of the June solstice issue of The Planetary Report, the Society's magazine that you can read for free, at

Mat Kaplan: There's much more for you on our website, including Jatan Mehta's brand new article about how planets get rings. And Bruce has an update on our Shoemaker Near Earth Object grant winners, while Casey Dreyer showcases the letter we've written to the US Congress in partnership with our friends at the National Space Society. It makes our case for full funding of NASA's near Earth object or NEO surveyor mission. The infrared space telescope that will be able to discover and characterize many more of those space rocks that cross our path. The June 17 edition of the Down Lake, our weekly newsletter, features a captivating image of an alien object on the surface of Mars. Alien, if you're a Martian that is. The artifact from Earth is thought to be a good sized piece of the Perseverance Rover's thermal shield that landed a couple of kilometers from the Rover. The rock it rests on is also pretty spectacular.

Mat Kaplan: The 240th median of the AAS happened in Pasadena last week. As I said, Planetary Society Digital Community Manager, Sarah Al-Ahmed was there. Sarah has a degree in astrophysics from UC Berkeley and a passion for space science and exploration. So you might say that for her, AAS was the heavens on Earth. Sarah, it sounds like you had a great time at this recent meeting of the AAS, the American Astronomical Society.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I really did. You know, I've been looking forward to trying to go to the AAS for years. Maybe 10 years now, I've been watching all their press conferences online, but being there in person, there's so much that doesn't get broadcast online. And it was a wonderful time.

Mat Kaplan: I have not been to one of these major science conferences in a while, but as I remember, it's just bewildering. There's such an assortment of presentations and no one could even hope to go to what? A fifth of them? There must have been some highlights, right? Let's talk about some of those.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: As you said, there were so many things going on. I tried to focus mostly on exoplanet research, but I was rolling with a whole group of astronomy friends. So we saw a lot of things. We started out on the first day with the opening plenary talk, which really started out with the bang. It was Jane Greeves from Cardiff University, talking about the phosphine and the atmosphere of Venus, which was a great way to start out. They went through all of the original data, showed the response to it, and how people were kind of questioning and kind of going back and forth on it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And it looks like they've continued to take data, kind of narrow their error bars on what's going on there. And it looks like the case for phosphene and on Venus is still there. But they're definitely looking forward to new missions that are going to Venus to try to clear it up a little bit. I think NASA's Veritas and DaVinci missions are definitely going to help out. Also Envision from ESA. That's going to be really cool to see what happens when all these missions get together and really try to hone in on what's going on in the atmosphere of Venus.

Mat Kaplan: All right. Exciting stuff ahead. And it's great to hear that Jane and her team are hanging in there with these results, trying to refine them. I mean, she has been a great guest on our show and maybe we'll link to her previous appearances on planetary radio. Let's move on to the way planets get formed, which is in these proto planetary discs. You heard a pretty exciting, pretty dynamic report about just how crazy some of those discs get.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: This one actually surprised me. It was probably one of my favorite talks of the entire conference. Konstantin Gerbig, from Yale University came in with some amazing data that showed that they have evidence that in proto planetary discs, you actually get these kind of hurricane like vortices that can form in the disc right around the area where water ice and water vapor kind of meet in the disc. You get these almost Earth-like hurricanes. And then when they form these small little planetesimals, they dissipate almost like a hurricane hitting the shore on Earth.

Mat Kaplan: Huh.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I would love to know more about this and how it plays into the forming of icy bodies, but also what happens when that hurricane dissipates. Where does all of that swirling ice go? That's really exciting.

Mat Kaplan: That really is. That sounds like a nice future topic for planetary radio as well. So that's proto planetary discs. The way worlds get their start, the way they're born. One of the ways they die, maybe the primary way, the ones that are too close to their star die, is when their star basically gobbles them up. You heard a session about planetary engulfment?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I did. This is cool because we know that our Sun, at some point, is going to hit that giant phase and it's going to eat the inner solar system. So they're looking at other star systems where this has happened. I heard a talk by someone named Ricardo Yarza from University of California at Santa Cruz. Their modeling shows that when a star engulfs the planet, particularly like a Jupiter sized planet or something of that scale, it actually increases the luminosity of the star for hundreds or even up to a thousand years. So if we were able to look at enough stars, we might be able to actually tell whether or not a star is eating its inner planets. And that's just really exciting. Not just for our solar system, but just, I don't know. It really captures the imagination at the ends of worlds. It's devastating, but really cool.

Mat Kaplan: So that glow you feel after a really good meal, it extends to our stellar companions as well. That main topic, that the thing that you said you were most interested in attending AAS about, did you hear a lot about exoplanets?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh yeah. And it was actually quite surprising because in previous years it's mostly cosmology, stellar dust, galaxies. Now we're getting more and more information about exo planets. And as everyone's looking forward to what the James Webb Space Telescope can do for our observations of planetary atmospheres, everybody was in on exo planets. So there was a lot to pick from, and frankly, I didn't get to see all of it. It was really exciting and I'm looking forward to kind of going into the press conferences after the fact online and trying to watch all of the things that I didn't get to see.

Mat Kaplan: I would imagine a lot of these researchers, well, not just for exoplanets, but a lot of fields are really looking forward to getting their hands on the JWST.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh yeah. I really do think that the next AAS is just going to be a rain of JWST results. The first science images from the telescope are going to be coming out on July 12th, along with the first spectra. The entire community is really excited about this. And I actually collected a lot of JWST swag while I was at the conference. I've got posters and pins and buttons and all kinds of cool stuff. So I'm going to package those up and I'm going to give them away on social media. So if any of the Planetary Radio listeners are watching on our social media around July 12th, you might have a chance to actually win some of the swag I got at the conference.

Mat Kaplan: July 12th. It's no coincidence that is the day we get those first science images from the JWST. So check out all those social media channels, which Sarah is the primary supporter of for the society. Just one more here as we look even further out with another telescope that world spanning telescope or radio telescope, called the Event Horizon Telescope, they're moving on and moving up.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh yeah. I went to, it was actually a series of talks from the EHT team going over their newest results on Sagittarius A*, which is the super massive black hole at the center of our galaxy. If anybody out there hasn't seen it yet, it is absolutely amazing. And I really recommend you look it up, but just to make sure that they can get even more data on our massive black hole and look at other ones, they're actually expanding the Event Horizon Telescope into this next generation telescope. So they're going to add more telescopes to it. And they're actually looking into whether or not they can coordinate with space telescopes to get some data, to help make it an even wider baseline and get even more resolution on these objects.

Mat Kaplan: Sarah, I envy you for getting to attend AAS this year, and I sure hope that you get the chance to go again, next time, wherever it happens. And maybe to some of these other great conferences, like the Division of Planetary Sciences, part of AAS, where you hear even more about planets, those small round things going around stars. Thanks very much for the great report.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thank you.

Mat Kaplan: That's Sarah Al-Ahmed. She is the Digital Community Manager for The Planetary Society. One of the first things the infant Planetary Society created was the Planetary Report. Our terrific magazine is still going strong. Latest editors are my colleagues, Danielle Gunn, our Chief Communications Officer and Editorial Director, Rae Paoletta, whom you here on Planetary Radio from time to time. I asked her to give us a sneak peek. Rae, welcome back to the show. And I'm glad that you can talk with us about this brand new issue of The Planetary Report. The June solstice issue. Of course, the paper copy, the hard copy goes to all of the members of The Planetary Society, but everybody can read it online at It has all the usual goodies, including a nice message up front from our boss. But the centerpiece is this gorgeous long article, beautifully illustrated by Jim Bell, our former president and the guy I call the Ansel Adams of Mars.

Rae Paoletta: Yeah, Jim's piece is really fantastic if you haven't had the chance to read it yet, it's called Renaissance in Red, and it really nicely lays out the path to a sample return mission or set of missions to Mars.

Mat Kaplan: And I didn't even mention that, sort of the theme of this is, I mean, we're celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pathfinder and Sojourner the cute little robot that had carried along with it. Jim talks about how much has happened in those 25 years since the success of Sojourner.

Rae Paoletta: This blows my mind. Not that long ago, we were just figuring out how to fly planes. And now we're talking about, let's get a sample return mission or set of missions to Mars. The passage of time does not cease to blow my mind. This piece does a really nice job of showing how far we've come and what's left to go.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, I was actually surprised even though I've been around for all of these, in fact, that was my first Planet Fest in 1997. I was not yet working for the society, but I was there to celebrate with everybody as the spacecraft came down on the surface of Mars. And boy, if I wasn't hooked before, I sure was after that. But he talks about nine orbiters, three landers, six rovers, and even a helicopter since that time, and 13 of them still working on the surface or above the surface of Mars.

Rae Paoletta: It's incredible. I mean, the Pathfinder mission really, I feel, paved the way for so many others to follow, including Perseverance and Ingenuity.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. I mean, so well named. In addition to this piece by Jim Bell and all the other goodies, there's this great upfront piece that you wrote about how The Planetary Society has brought so many of us along to Mars.

Rae Paoletta: Yeah. So I had the chance to talk to Lou about this. Lou Freeman, one of our co-founders, just about this journey, right? And how The Planetary Society played a pretty critical part of it. It was interesting for me to get to dig through the history of everything, to learn how JPL and NASA and The Planetary Society really collaborated to make this a special mission and to actually get Planetary Society members names onto something that flew to Mars. That's pretty spectacular.

Mat Kaplan: And how. And we've done it so many times since. What I didn't know is that even Lou didn't realize that this little chip was actually there, that he kind of got a call from JPL or NASA saying, Hey, by the way, we brought your chip with all these names.

Rae Paoletta: Yeah. What a surprise. Can you imagine working so much and that you find out, Hey, by the way, the names are there. When I found that out, I was laughing so much and I think it's just a terrific surprise, as Lou says perfectly in the article.

Mat Kaplan: It was also nice to see the co-founder of The Planetary Society. The guy who hired me by the way, quoted once again in the Planetary Report, the magazine that he helped to start, and that you are a big part of carrying on this tradition today.

Rae Paoletta: It's an honor, really. It's just standing on the shoulder of so many other giants before me, right? And it's just really cool to see this come to life. Every issue that we put out I'm super proud of it. And this one, like we were saying, is so special because of that, it's almost like a time capsule in a way. I just think that's fantastic.

Mat Kaplan: Well, it's waiting for people at If it has not arrived in your mail already. Rae, thanks for taking a couple minutes to talk with us about this new edition of TPR as we call it. The Planetary Report.

Rae Paoletta: Always a pleasure Mat. Thank you so much.

Mat Kaplan: Yes. Always a pleasure indeed. That's Rae Paoletta, the Editorial Director at The Planetary Society who is responsible for The Planetary Report and a lot of the other great stuff that we put out, much of which you can find at

Mat Kaplan: I was on a Kennedy Space Center balcony on the morning of June 25th, 2019. Thousands of us were bathed in the light of 27 rocket engines as the Falcon Heavy thundered upward. Bill Nye was standing next to me. We watched in awe and wonder and in great pride. As you'll hear from Bill, it wasn't long before we heard the signal confirming that LightSail 2 had been ejected or deployed from its carrier, the Prox 1 spacecraft. It was just four weeks later that the tiny cubesat spread its silver wings. Now it's three years later. Bill, Bruce, and Jennifer join me online for a look back and a look ahead. Happy anniversary colleagues. This is a great time for us to be celebrating. I'm happy to be able to do that with you and our audience.

Bill Nye: It is fantastic, Mat. So even as we record this, LightSail 2 is on its third year in space, thanks largely to Dr. Betts and his people.

Mat Kaplan: And Dr. Betts-

Bruce Betts: Thank you.

Bill Nye: Well, I mean, he's the Chief Scientist and this is pretty much a science mission. Yeah. I remember when Carl Sagan talked about solar sailing on The Tonight Show back in 1976.

Bruce Betts: They had TV back then?

Bill Nye: They had TV, but when I watched it, and I'm not kidding in a dormitory at Cornell University, it was not in color. I'm not even joking you. It's really quite a thing to get this thing to work. And Bruce, you and your team have figured out how to fly it so it stayed in space for how do you reckon? An extra two years or more? Three years when it's all done?

Bruce Betts: Yeah, we didn't expect it to last this long. And part of that is the success of the mission and our sailing ability. And part of it is models that weren't really capable of dealing well with a big sail mixed with a small mass spacecraft. But yeah, we're way past both the orbital lifetime we expected and also things are still working. I mean, remember this is our biggest project, but it's a shoestring operation in terms of space flight. And we have this very small core team that's been keeping it going. It's just amazing. All the major components, all the components of the spacecraft that we're working are still working.

Bill Nye: Well, I was going to say the pictures have been fantastic.

Mat Kaplan: Yes, they certainly have been. I only wish that we could show some as part of this program, but of course you can find those at Specifically what, right?

Bruce Betts: Or

Bill Nye: I often go in with because it takes me to the dashboard. I like to see the temperature up there. I like to know where we are on the Earth surface. I love to look at that map.

Mat Kaplan: We're going to take the temperature of LightSail. We're going to find out about the current status a little bit later in this conversation, but I want to take the three of you back. We have such a long and largely not entirely glorious history with solar sailing. Jennifer, you were there right? For Cosmos 1?

Jennifer Vaughn: I was. I was there. It was an exciting and highly disappointing moment in our history. We gather together to wait for those first indications that our spacecraft has made it to orbit and they never came. So there was the long pause of trying to figure out, what does no information actually mean? And then there was the multi-day period of accepting reality that no information actually meant that we were not going to sail.

Bill Nye: I remember people using the expression, waiting for it to come over the hill. Waiting for the spacecraft to come over the hill, meaning above the horizon, but it never did. It's somewhere in the Barents Sea, which is somewhere in the Arctic. You know, it was on a Soviet era ballistic missile and repurposed. And nowadays that's technology is connected to what's going on in the world right now.

Mat Kaplan: Ah.

Bill Nye: It's really a pause for thought.

Mat Kaplan: Well, we did recover from that experience and completely redesigned what we were up to and that resulted in LightSail, a tidy little cubesat. I don't know which of the three of you is best to talk about how we made that recovery from Cosmos 1, because there was such a huge amount, not just of money, but of God, emotional.

Bill Nye: Expertise. Yes. And yeah. So we had these meetings with these very experienced aerospace guys, and we talked about the probability of, if you try it again, would it work? And it just became clear that our members would not go for another launch attempt on a Russian rocket. That became clear from correspondence. What do you do if you can't use this nominally ideal launch vehicle? If you can't use that, what do you do? Well, Dr. B, you ran around and got an ELaNa launch, right? Educational launch of nano satellites.

Bruce Betts: Yes. Although I didn't, it was part of the large team involved early on. And then we've been doing LightSail stuff since 2009, possibly 2008, depending on how you count it. But yes, the first launch was secured through ELaNa, the educational launch program through NASA.

Mat Kaplan: Jennifer, a lot must have gone into deciding to move forward with a completely new design, particularly after what happened with Cosmos 1. Can you talk about what went into making, committing our ourselves to this new project?

Jennifer Vaughn: To me, it's a very interesting story to see this evolution that took place between Cosmos 1 and LightSail. A lot of that happened because technology had changed. So going back in time, during the era of Cosmos 1, looking at a small sat, a cubesat, wasn't even an option. You had to think about large spacecraft buses to be able to manage such a large sail in space. But during that era, between when we lost Cosmos 1 and we fully launched a new program, NASA had done a demonstration mission on what they called a drag sail. So this was an opportunity to open up a large sail, to use the drag of the atmosphere to bring something down.

Jennifer Vaughn: And from that concept, we started some discussions about what might be possible in a small satellite. The reason why I find it interesting in that the kind of evolution side of how a project becomes something as large in scope as LightSail, is it took us from developing a component of a larger mission that was run by the Russian Space Agency for LightSail, to thinking well with the technology changes and the team that we have available to us, maybe we can do the whole thing.

Jennifer Vaughn: So it went from The Planetary Society, having a very large role on a mission to The Planetary Society, having a mission. It was all helped and supported by this idea that technology had changed. Things had gotten smaller. They'd gotten less expensive. And we had accumulated a team of people around us who knew LightSails, who knew what it would take to actually build out our own mission. So we did something we'd never done before, which was take on a Planetary Society mission.

Bill Nye: And the other thing is the standards had evolved. This business of the cubesat, cubicle satellite, based on dimensions of 10 centimeters. 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 10, or in our case three times 10. 10 by 10 by 30. As Jen is saying that these standards emerged allowed us to buy standard solar panels, sort of standard circuit board, and then the idea of instead of using inflatable booms and the boom would be the same usages on a sailboat, inflatable spokes of a wheel. We use these so-called tape measure booms, which resemble your home or contractors' steel tape measures. So they're spring loaded. I mean, rather they're springy. They have a flexibility. They can store energy mechanically when you compress them. Nano Sail D, that Jen's referring to, was really turned out to be beneficial for us. And this is a part of the mission that I remember very well.

Bill Nye: So I was now placed in charge through some vote at a board meeting. Stuff happens, and Nano Sail D had trouble. So it got on orbit and the sail, this thing that was going to drag down through just those few molecules that are up at that altitude, was going to run into them, the sail didn't deploy, for my recollection is almost six weeks, five and a half weeks. And it finally sprung loose because of thermal changes. It got warm on one side cold on the other. Warm, cold, warm, cold, eventually that shook it loose. Expansion contraction. So we agreed that man, we can't do that. We can't let the natural spring load of these wound up tape measure booms, do the job. We had to have a motor. And when you add a motor, man, you add complexity. Stuff to go wrong.

Bill Nye: And the motor literally is a Swiss movement. It's like a Swiss watch. You've heard of, well, it's a Swiss gear train. And the thing spins like crazy to deploy the sails, then it became clear that you can't just push them out. You had to push them out and then pull them back. You had to push them, then pull them back a little bit and then push them out tomorrow. And I just remember the guy, Chris Bitty, this young guy, oh, here's what we do. He's a mechanical engineer. And he figured it out. That's my recollection. This is eyewitness hearsay. That was a real turning point. That, and the meetings you guys like with Doug Stetson and those guys were well, are we going to be able to pull this off? It costs this much. The risk assessment is this high, this fraction. On and on and on these beautiful graphs on these big, this is before power pointing you guys.

Bill Nye: It was just on big sheets of paper and we decided we could do it. And so if you're a Planetary Society member, thank you. Both LightSail missions, the whole thing all in has cost about $7 million US. Is that right Jen? $7 million. Estimates from guys like Doug Stetson and Bruce Betts, people who work in the industry, Scott Hubbard, say it's about a 20th of the cost of a mission if you did it at a space agency. So it'd be 140, $150 million. If you tried these two space flights at a regular space agency, but thanks to you all out there and the good work of Dr. Betts and the team, we have had just a fantastic mission. And I hope it brings for many of our listeners who will eventually go online, it gives you that overview effect that all the astronauts talk about when you're in space and you look down at the Earth, you see no political boundaries, you see the rivers, you see the influence of humans. You see all that ocean, ocean, ocean, ocean, ocean. It changes the way you feel about our planetary home.

Mat Kaplan: Bill, Bruce, Jennifer, and I will be back in a minute with more LightSail fun. Wait, here's Bruce now.

Bruce Betts: Will you help defend Earth? The Planetary Society is advancing the global endeavor to protect our world from an asteroid impact. It's the one large scale natural disaster we can prevent, but we're not ready yet. Please become a planetary defender and power our crucial work. You can double your support for planetary defense when you make a gift today. When you do, a generous member of the society will match your gift up to a total of $15,000. It's a great opportunity to make a difference. Visit Thanks.

Mat Kaplan: Bruce, about the giddiest I think I've ever seen you is when you have new images to share from LightSail 2.

Bruce Betts: Indeed. I do the program manager stuff, but I also have evolved into the imaging team lead. It's a small team, everyone handles that.

Bill Nye: I was going to say, yeah.

Bruce Betts: Yeah. My whole history goes back. I mean, when I got involved in planetary exploration because as a kid, I thought the pictures were really cool. So now getting cool pictures. So yeah, I still get giddy. I just got giddy the other night with as the thumbnail came down, we sent down the small thumbnail to figure out what to do. And I have these little pet areas that I want to capture and dependent upon clouds and orbits. And I finally got, what I think is when we get the high-res is a sweet, sweet picture of Madagascar.

Bill Nye: Why Madagascar?

Bruce Betts: Because we can.

Bill Nye: No, Madagascar turns out to be of great evolutionary or climate importance. You know, it's this isolated island in the most abundant life, that part of Earth. And so getting a picture, I got a great feeling about it Dr. B. I'm looking forward. I haven't seen it yet. I haven't seen it.

Bruce Betts: No, it'll take us a little bit to get the high resolution down. So why Madagascar? Because I'm trying to do as much as I can over the course of the mission to cover as much of the land that is. We only have an inclination of the orbit of 24 degrees, meaning we only go up to 24 degrees north latitude and down to 24 degrees south. That means we can get images somewhat farther north. And we communicate with ground stations in the US, but it's still constrained. And some places, like it took me forever to get Indonesia without cloud. So it's really just [inaudible 00:29:59].

Bill Nye: Oh, tell me about it. I think we've all been there Dr. B.

Bruce Betts: It's a personal quest.

Bill Nye: I'm trying to get a picture of Indonesia without clouds. Oh, I think we've all done that. That is cool, man. That's just cool.

Mat Kaplan: Just as a sidelight, Bruce is also the guy that we can count on scene at the office or any other society event with a single lens reflex camera with a long lens on it. So his interest in photography extends far below lower Earth or medium Earth orbit.

Bruce Betts: Yeah. Cool. You know, fourth biggest island in the world and silly pictures of TPS staff shoving food in their face. They all appeal to me. And dogs are more dogs.

Mat Kaplan: Hi, Bruce. What is the current status beyond what we can see on that terrific dashboard?

Bruce Betts: We're coming down and you can see that on the dashboard. So we always knew we weren't getting up high enough that our solar sailing would be able to overcome the force of drag where we think we're totally in space in this wonderful vacuum. But especially when you have a low mass object with a big sail, it's like taking a piece of paper and putting it out in the wind. It's going to get highly effective. So drag is bringing us down. We're still, as I say, amazingly things are still working. We've had some communications issues, which seemed to be mostly resolved, but we are having more trouble communicating and getting data down, but we're still able to do it.

Bill Nye: Bruce, what's a communication issue?

Bruce Betts: There can be any number of them. And I think we've sampled nearly all of them during the course of the mission. This one is exciting because it's unknown. We don't know why we're getting some good passes and some bad. So it could be the transmitter on the spacecraft. I mean, we're still hearing from it. It's just mostly, it's having trouble receiving the uplink command to tell it to send stuff down. But for example, when you have a component on one of, we have two main ground stations, one at Cal poly San Luis Obispo, which John Vallardo runs the communication as well as software for the space draft. And then one at Purdue, both of them over course of mission event parts break on the ground station. So then we're just stuck or we're limited to one ground station. We've had the computers go down and have major issues that coordinate the two ground stations.

Bruce Betts: Then we lose all communication. And then we just have uncertainty because we not only have a challenge of communicating with a little tiny transmitter and a little tiny antenna on an object that's hundreds of kilometers away, but also we've got this big radio reflective thing, the sail, which also complicates and limits how good the signal is depending on what orientation the spacecraft is at. And we are intentionally changing that orientation all the time and unintentionally having it changed. So I could go on and on, but I'm sure I've gone too far already. We can talk about flying and I'll share more communications with you.

Bill Nye: No, but you guys, speaking of, I just remember I was in New York City and LightSail 1 had been up in space and nothing was happening in 2014. And guys like Bruce and Dave Spencer would say, oh, don't worry. There'll be a cosmic ray and it will strike the spacecraft and cause the computer to reboot. Oh, it'll be fine. Like what? What the hell? That's no way to run a space line or whatever it is. Sure enough, the thing rebooted. And then I guess I'll never forget this moment when the sail started to deploy. And I wrote on my paper notes, I'm trying to believe it. That it was really deploying because the motor, we call revolutions, you call them counts, right? It was 185,000 revolutions of the motor to deploy the sail. Somehow in LightSail 2, since it had worked once I believed it. But the first time after all those weeks of being in orbit and nothing happening, and these guys reassuring me that all we had to do was wait for a random space ray, if I may paraphrase Dr. Betts. I was skeptical. But now I'm convinced.

Bruce Betts: We made a lot of changes based on LightSail 1 to LightSail 2 to make it much more robust so we no longer depend on cosmic rays. Even when something goes wrong, we have a number of timers, both software and even hardware built in so that we would never get stuck in that situation. So we still have trouble with reboots happening, not happening, but we learned from LightSail 1 as was intended.

Mat Kaplan: I remember that moment. This was LightSail 1 when a bunch of us were sitting in a hotel room in Florida, not long after the launch, and Bill, you were on a video link with us. There is a video of this and we'll put a link to it on this weeks show page a You can see the moment that we got word that little motor was spinning around as quickly as it was supposed to deploy that first cubesat sail in orbit. Jennifer, it just makes me think of all the other wonderful moments that have come as part of this ongoing program. I don't know if anybody who was more enthusiastic, I'll use the word again, more giddy or more affected by this than you were. Maybe particularly at the launch of LightSail 2, which was just overwhelming.

Jennifer Vaughn: Yeah, there's a risk I'm sharing too much here, but there's some video out there of me just bawling. Not crying a little bit, but fully bawling.

Bill Nye: So you guys, if you've never seen a rocket launch, I know you're listening to this podcast because you're space enthusiast, but really plan to get to Florida or Vandenberg Air Force base, or French Guiana and watch a launch. It really is spectacular. But the launch that brought my beloved Jenn to tears or bawling was this night launch of the Falcon Heavy. And it was just spectacular man. The ground lit up. Your clothes are vibrating. Your hair is vibrating. The balcony thing, the observation deck that NASA provides was vibrating. And oh man. And then we realized it was really real. Like, this was going to happen. And then there was a second part of this where this is from memory, Dr. B, was it 54 satellites were deployed from that mission? From that launch? Several dozen.

Bruce Betts: 24.

Bill Nye: 24, excuse me. We were in the parking lot of the Kennedy Space Center visitor area thing. And it deployed. And like wow. Okay. We're in business. That really was, after all the tooth pulling you guys and all the setbacks, it really was a cool thing. And it's flying today. Thanks to you out there, you listeners. And it is informing space exploration worldwide. We are. The LightSail 2 is accomplishing the mission of The Planetary Society to advance space science, to advance space exploration. The near Earth asteroid scout mission will use details of the technology that we developed thanks to you all. So it's really, it's a heck of a thing. And the third year anniversary, it's a wonderful feeling.

Mat Kaplan: Jennifer, I want to hear more about what this has meant to us as a society, The Planetary Society and the larger society if you choose to, and where we go from here.

Jennifer Vaughn: It has shifted the culture of The Planetary Society dramatically. It has shifted, I believe, expectations as well, dramatically. And that's an interesting place to be. We pulled off something that we weren't even sure we could pull off. So we were stretching, I'd say to our fullest extent, taking this project on, but then bringing it through completion. So very, very challenging. And I think it's always important to note that there were many setbacks along the way. So this was not smooth sailing, pun intended. It took a lot from the organization over a period of 20 years. So half of our existence, we have been in some way or another working on solar sailing, but the idea of getting a success, this is something that Bill always talked about, pulling off a successful space mission that was completely supported by individuals.

Jennifer Vaughn: This was going to be a paradigm shift and we hope it's a paradigm shift that goes beyond how the organization thinks about itself. But really, as you said, in a broader context, that there's new opportunity out there to think through the resources you need to get something done in space and where those different sources of revenue to support your project might come from, because this was truly 100% funded through people, through individuals and that's never been done before. So I think everyone needs to remember to be really proud to be part of this. That even if you didn't contribute specifically to LightSail, just being a member of the organization helped give us the resources to move this project through completion and to have this kind of long term success with it too. This was a wonderful surprise that we've gotten three years with it and not just one year.

Jennifer Vaughn: So where do we go from here? This is the ongoing question. So now we know what we do well, and we do know that we can push those boundaries and do things that are hard, do things that are difficult and exciting for the public. But we also recognize you have to have all the right ingredients to do that. And that's, I'd say where we are right now. We've been building structures to gather the right ingredients so that we know when we see it, what that next big stretch is going to be.

Bill Nye: When you say structures, Jen, you're talking about organizational arrangements? You're not talking about gantry towers. [inaudible 00:40:47].

Jennifer Vaughn: No, no, no, no, thank you. Yeah. [inaudible 00:40:50].

Bill Nye: Do we have a gantry tower? I like gantry tower.

Jennifer Vaughn: Build that into your budget plans. Yeah.

Bruce Betts: And I'm sure that'll get approved. Let's build a mobile launcher.

Jennifer Vaughn: So for instance, we have built our step grant program that Bruce can go into more detail about. The step grant program really builds on what we do best, which is we seed fund. We provide small amounts of funding to get new ideas started. So with that, you never know when you might find some new project that you are providing seed funding for, but actually could grow into something much larger. So we are keeping an eye out for those opportunities, but we've also been doing things just to strengthen our organization so that when the right ingredients come into play, we're ready. We're ready to go make a delicious new dish. I had to run that through.

Bill Nye: A delicious new dish in space of yumminess.

Jennifer Vaughn: Yes, exactly.

Bill Nye: Space exploration brings out the best in us people. We saw problems that have never been solved before. And so we're looking for the next problem to solve.

Mat Kaplan: I have never been prouder to be a part of the society. And I've been part of the society for a very long time. Not just because of LightSail, but because of things like the step grant program that Bruce and I have talked about on the show where we will continue to not just innovate, but encourage innovation by others.

Bill Nye: And the future for those of you listening, the future of the organization is going to include The Planetary Academy where we're going to engage kids and families in the same way. Everybody you talk to who works in space today with very few exceptions, Jen, everybody who works in space today got inspired when they were kids. Everybody who does anything. You ask your doctor when he or she wanted to be a physician. You ask anybody in space exploration, just as unique in this regard. And so the best is yet ahead for us at The Planetary Society and LightSail 2 has done more than anybody expected of it. I think the best pictures are even yet ahead. Aren't they Dr. Bruce?

Bruce Betts: Yes.

Bill Nye: The Madagascar pictures are going to be jaw droppingly fantastic. No, for reals.

Bruce Betts: I hope that works out.

Mat Kaplan: You're kind of committed now.

Bill Nye: Well, but he got the thumbnail. That usually bodes well.

Bruce Betts: Oh, it usually bodes very well.

Bill Nye: Do you guys go without twisting? How often do you de-tumble? Is that still a good verb?

Bruce Betts: Yes. Just to clarify, we twist twice every orbit, intentionally trying to do 90 degree twists so we're picking up the sunlight, pushing us on one side, going edge on towards the sun. But one of the things we've had to deal with is, and we've learned a lot is the momentum wheel, this fast spinning little wheel at thousands of RPM that we use to make those 90 degree turns. Eventually it saturates, it ends up pegging it as fast as it can go in one direction. So then we have built in we've found a two day cadence actually seems to work pretty well. Every two days, which would be 28 orbits, or so every 28 orbits or so we do a couple hour de tumble where we stop doing any rotation of the spacecraft other than the spacecraft. And it's a little computer brain and software try to use the Earth magnetic field and the magnetorquer in their basically electromagnets to take what spin is left in the spacecraft, take it out and therefore take momentum out of the system so that you can then fire up the wheel and not have it saturating again.

Bruce Betts: Now we've tried a lot of techniques and that seems to be working pretty well.

Mat Kaplan: Bonus tech content for you. And I've always loved the fact that our solar sails also controlled in part by the Earths magnetic field. It's just thrilling stuff, folks.

Bruce Betts: Well, it's not like this magnetic field is sentient or anything. I mean, we're telling-

Mat Kaplan: How do you know?

Bruce Betts: We have software on the spacecraft with the altitude control and determination software that tells it what to do and uses the mag Earth's magnetic field. We don't hurt it though.

Mat Kaplan: Just a little bit. You want to learn more? It's all there at planetary.orgs/lightsail or Thank you. The three of you leaders of this project. Leaders of everything we do at The Planetary Society for coming on to help celebrate this third anniversary of sailing on the light of the sun.

Bill Nye: Thank you, Mat. Go LightSail!

Jennifer Vaughn: Go LightSail.

Bruce Betts: Go LightSail. Is third anniversary gifts or Mylar?

Mat Kaplan: Civilized Mylar. Yeah.

Jennifer Vaughn: Traditional. Yes.

Mat Kaplan: Wow. Lots of stuff on today's show. Lots of people to hear from. And now we turn, as we always do to the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society. That's Bruce Betts. Dr. B, as Bill, you heard likes to call him who has just, is this right? Just returned from Madagascar.

Bruce Betts: I did. I just returned from Madagascars through the magic of radio and podcast. We're recording this after the other one where I was hoping we'd get Madagascar. We did. We got Madagascar. Beautiful LightSail 2 picture. Nice. Sail. Still exists. It's always encouraging. Probably be released with an article that I'll be doing. That'll come out probably this weekend tied to the anniversary June 25th. So look for that on It'll talk about the last year of LightSail, as well as having new pretty pictures, including our friend Madagascar.

Mat Kaplan: Madagascar.

Bruce Betts: [inaudible 00:46:41] island in the world. I can't see it, but I feel like the lemurs are smiling.

Mat Kaplan: I'm sure they are. And they're waving too with their feet and their hands. All right. So what else is up?

Bruce Betts: Nothing else matters, Mat. Back to Madagascar. No, no. I'm still excited for the world of pre-dawn people because the planets, they're still in a beautiful line in the pre-dawn East. Going in order from the Sun, even with Mercury, the lowest down in the East. Bright Mercury followed by Venus of course. Super bright Venus. And then if you look down, you can see the Earth. And then if you look up again, you can see reddish Mars and yellowish Saturn and special guest appearance from the moon. The moon crossing through this group, it'll finish its party with the planets, with Mercury on the 28th. So, that is the highlight of the sky. Doesn't happen very often. Cool. Check it out. If you're conscious. Move on to this weekend space history, there's kind of a theme to today's show. I think. 2019 Mat. LightSail 2 launched.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, that's it. Okay. Yeah, that'll do.

Bruce Betts: It was kind of a slow week in space history besides that. There certainly were interesting things that happened, but the only truly breakthrough revolutionary cheese laden version of goodness was LightSail 2's launch. No, there was other good stuff, but that's what I got for you. I'm sorry.

Mat Kaplan: So this is why we told Elon you are go for June 25th.

Bruce Betts: Yeah. That's what we did. We didn't have a delay of multiple years where we never were sure when we were going to launch. Nope. Nope. We just said go for June 25th. Let us move on to random space facts.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, that was unique.

Bruce Betts: I try. It's hard. Okay. So LightSail 2. I don't know if you've heard of it. CubeSat solar sails spacecraft demonstrated. Yeah. Anyway, as of the third anniversary of its launch on June 25th, 2022. LightSail 2 has traveled the Earth in Earth orbit more than 700 million kilometers.

Mat Kaplan: Wow.

Bruce Betts: More than 400 million miles during approximately 16,000 orbits.

Mat Kaplan: That's great. Oh man. I love our little cubesat.

Bruce Betts: A little solar sail. It just kept on going.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Excellent. We have some fun stuff for the contest today.

Bruce Betts: Oh excellent. I asked the very professional question, what unofficial, but common name for a type of feature on Venus sounds like it would be delicious for breakfast. How'd we do Mat?

Mat Kaplan: It wasn't a huge response, but the stuff we got was choice. It was quality over quantity this time, because there were such fun responses and I'll go through some of those. Here is I think the answer from the poet Laureate, Dave Fairchild in Kansas. If you want a breakfast that is cooked up nice and hot, Venus is the planet that would hit the very spot. Vulcanism made the place so very harem scar'em. You might not have the time to eat your pancake looking pHarem.

Bruce Betts: Wow. I wondered where we were going with Haram Scarem. Yes. The official name is Pharem. Latin for pancake looking item. No. No it's not.

Mat Kaplan: I don't think so.

Bruce Betts: The plural being Pharrah. Ah, but we call them pancake domes because they look like, you'll never guess it, pancakes.

Mat Kaplan: They really, really do. I mean, this is a couple of people sent images and man that's, I've made me hungry.

Bruce Betts: The great thing is they're already hot.

Mat Kaplan: Well, that was noted by our winner. Chris Bailey in Texas, long time entrant. He's been listening for years entering on and off for nearly three years. Chris, you have won. Pancake domes he says, and he adds, I'll take the pancakes, but please hold the sulfuric acid.

Bruce Betts: Oh man. That's what they use instead of maple syrup.

Mat Kaplan: It doesn't come in one of those little pitchers at the IHOP. I don't think.

Mat Kaplan: Not without a warning label. Chris you've won yourself a Planetary Society, kick asteroid rubber asteroid. So congratulations on that. And here's more Kent Merley in Washington. Hopefully guests from Mars will supply us some hematite blueberries.

Bruce Betts: Ooh, tasty.

Mat Kaplan: Nathan Hunter, a whole bunch of great people in Washington this time, Nathan who's also in Washington. He says other options I considered, canalli as it sounds like cannoli. Mead crater, if we're adopting a Viking diet and Iraq noids if we're deciding to set aside our human biases.

Bruce Betts: Yeah. I'm sorry. I had really boring tastes. I just like pancakes,

Mat Kaplan: Alexandra Hebdo in Georgia, among the less appetizing features that might have been chosen. Undye, Dorsa, and here's my favorite, fluctus.

Bruce Betts: Ew.

Mat Kaplan: I don't think I want to know. Edwin King in the UK not sharing the US sweet tooth. I'd prefer some mushroom rocks.

Bruce Betts: I think they've seen some from the rovers on Mars. Maybe we'll find some fungus for you out there.

Mat Kaplan: Here's the closer from Gene Lewin, also in the state of Washington. At any roadside diner, you can get them by the stack with a pad of butter, a cup of joe to wash them back. Add some maple syrup. Your waistline, it may grow pancake domes will fill the void. Please leave a tip for Flow.

Bruce Betts: Kiss my grit.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Oh gosh. Oh, it's so good to do this show with somebody who goes back that far like I do. Oh, look it up, please.

Bruce Betts: It is fun. It's kind of depressing, but it's fun. I should mention, I feel like I should mention some actual science here. These are like very large volcanic flows where we think the lava comes out and it's very viscous and comes out in one place. And that really strong pressure from the Venus atmosphere combined with the hot temperatures, keeping it flowing, it flows out kind of evenly like pouring pancake batter and watching it spread out into a roughly circular shape. It is made of rock though. Do not eat. Sorry. Our lawyers make me say that.

Mat Kaplan: I think we're ready for a new one and a really cool prize. Something never offered before.

Bruce Betts: Wow. What is it, Mat?

Mat Kaplan: I'll get to it.

Bruce Betts: Oh, I can hardly wait. All right. Here's your question. I was so excited. I forgot. I ask a question. I've got one. You'll be shocked. Shocked I tell you.

Mat Kaplan: Got to be something electrical.

Bruce Betts: How many torque rods, also known as magnetorquer, does LightSail 2 have? Go to

Mat Kaplan: So I was right. It's electromagnetic. You have until the 29th, that would be Wednesday, June 29 at 8:00 AM Pacific time to enter this one. Shouldn't be too hard to find everybody. So And that prize, I'm going to hold it up for you to see.

Bruce Betts: That is one of the coolest things I've ever seen Mat. Not that I'm totally biased. So you can ignore what I say.

Mat Kaplan: Here's the book, Solar System Reference for Teens by Bruce Betts, PhD. A fascinating guide to our planet's moon space programs and more. I have read it. It is a great read. First I had the ebook version, which was fine, but the physical version is really more fun in it. The illustrations are great. You did a great job with this. So this is Bruce's newest everybody. Thanks for providing it as a surprise.

Bruce Betts: Sure. My pleasure. And just to note that I feel many of us are still teens at heart. Anyway, enjoy.

Mat Kaplan: No, I see what you're getting at there and you're absolutely right. This is really a book for everybody. I mean the earlier books for the little ones were pretty and had great stuff and were fun. But this one, this one, and I don't think there are any adults out there who kind feel that this is beneath them. So go for it. It's a solar system reference for teens from Rock Ridge Press and it's available in all the usual places now, right?

Bruce Betts: It is indeed. Certainly online. And a lot of the big stores carry it. At least that's what I've heard. It just went on sale today. The day we are recording this in celebration of, happy solstice Mat!

Mat Kaplan: Happy solstice. I forgot about that. Happy solstice to you, Bruce. Happy June solstice and goodbye.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody go out there. Look up the night sky and think about what you want to put on your Venetian pancake domes. Do not eat. Thank you. And goodnight.

Mat Kaplan: I finally found a really good sugar free fake maple syrup. That is what I would put on those pancake domes. It'd be kind of fun to see what happens with them at 800 degrees Centigrade. Anyway, it's Bruce Betts. He's the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society who joins us every week here for What's Up. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by its silver winged members. Sail with us. Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. Ad astra.