out of this world

Bill Nye shares the future of space exploration at Houston's annual SpaceCom

In his SpaceCom 2019 keynote address, Bill Nye shares the breakthrough technology he's been able to develop at The Planetary Society. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

According to Bill Nye, known to most as "The Science Guy" but who now leads the largest non-government space exploration nonprofit, humanity has always asked two questions: How did we get here and are we alone.

"If you want to answer those two questions, you've got to explore space," Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, says in his keynote address at Houston's annual SpaceCom.

The conference, which took over downtown Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center for November 20 and 21, welcomed a record number of attendees from all over the world. Throughout the two days, 2,500 space fans, experts, and professionals from around the world engaged with panels and programming as well as the exhibit hall full of dozens of space companies.

In his keynote address, Nye walked through the history of solar space studies and breakthroughs, from Johannes Kepler's 17th century observation of the sun's solar force on comets to Carl Sagan's work to develop a completely solar powered spacecraft. Sagan, who was a mentor to Nye, passed away in 1996 and didn't get to see his dream become reality.

Nye, however, has accomplished Sagan's goals, and the technology he and The Planetary Society has developed is low cost and completely citizen funded, representing a huge step toward democratizing space.

"We built two spacecrafts for $7 million," Nye says of LightSail 1 and 2.

The first iteration didn't last long, but LightSail 2 equipped with CubeSats — small but mighty satellites — became the first controlled solar sail spacecraft completely propelled by the sun. Solar sails use radiation pressure from the sun as an energy source reacting with extremely thin reflective material that makes up the sail.

The device, which is still in space, represents a lot of potential for long-term space missions since no fuel is needed. While there have been light sails launched in the past, LightSail 2 was the first iteration to be able to be steered from earth in a timely manner. (The device can be turned in a matter of minutes.)

"With this technology, we can democratize space," Nye tells the crowd, sharing that just a few hours before, Time magazine named the technology as the most innovative invention in aerospace.

Nye says that while the work he is doing at The Planetary Society came about as a group of engineers trying to solve a specific problem, the results they have found and the feedback they received represent the world's interest in continuing space exploration in a cost-effective and feasible way.

"Space brings people together," Nye says.

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