Cosmic Queries: LightSail with Bill Nye

Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society, via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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About This Episode

In May 2015, the non-profit Planetary Society will launch its first LightSail spacecraft for a “shakedown cruise” in Earth orbit. So who better to answer fan questions about the program than their CEO, Bill Nye, and his co-host Chuck Nice? You’ll find out how this tiny spacecraft (30 cm on a side) with a big solar sail (32 square meters of aluminized mylar) will get into space as the secondary payload on an Atlas 5, and what it will do once it gets there. Bill explains how LightSail will be pushed through space by sunlight, because even though photons may not have mass, they do have momentum. Learn about cubesats, and why the US Air Force is so interested in them. Explore practical applications for solar sail technology both here on Earth and out in space, from deflecting asteroids to traveling to Proxima Centauri. Plus, discover why the Society’s first attempt at a solar sail in 2005 ended in failure – and why this time things will be different.

NOTE: All-Access subscribers can listen to this entire episode commercial-free here: Cosmic Queries: LightSail with Bill Nye.

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  • eat my balls

    Chuck nice is such a f***ing boring pile of shit, jesus christ he is so full of himself and he sounds so annoying.

    • Robert M

      Hello, eat my balls, glad to hear your point of view. I want to share that your voice is annoying even though I’ve never heard it. I’m sure it sounds like an a**hole making noise.

    • Martin

      I like him… for me Eugene sounds very annoying. Chuck’s voice is OK and he’s actually interested in the science in the sense that he’s actually NOT full of himself but one can hear that he’s really also listening to the scientist.

    • Jockey Jockey

      Jesus Christ just teach you to talk like that?

    • MizzouCogNeuro

      I love Neil and StarTalk. Those of you who seem to want only to complain
      about the comedians; Brian Cox has a podcast (with a less obvious,
      British comedic element) on BBC called ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’
      Perhaps it will be more to your liking? I personally listen to both regularly, but I wouldn’t begrudge others their preference.

      Also, the last time I tried recommending this podcast, StarTalk marked it as spam – yet the comment above is totally above board…

    • decent

      Well you’re a big fat stupid head!

    • Mr. K

      Can we have this comment removed? Teachers use this podcast sometimes to reward their students and I’m sure we can all agree that having this type of comment on screen in front of a class of children isn’t exactly appropriate!

  • Mitch

    is Eugene ever coming back as co-host for the studio shows? I miss him

    • Yes, he is. He’s doing the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival in Boston right now, but he will be back May 3rd as co-host of Neil’s interview with Christopher Nolan about the science of Interstellar.

  • Robert M

    I love you chuck nice!

  • Snake

    Man, I really love the chemistry between Chuck and Bill. There is this sence of respect and camaraderie between the two, it’s really awesome. You don’t feel like Chuck is just there to be a clown (I sometimes get this feeling with Eugene, who is a bit more forced to me), you feel that he’s there to make this science moment not just a boring lesson with a boring teacher, but an interactive, smart and funny dialog that keeps your attention and make me laugh all by myself. Chuck, you’re awesome, and I hope you’ll keep sharing your incredible passion about what Neil and Bill say, while helping them making Start Talk more than just a class, but a really classy, smart and funny Podcast.

    I listen to Start Talk while doing data extraction from experiments in behavioral ecology (the dull, non-sexy part of the work for me), and thanks to this podcast, I never feel like I’m waisting my time.

    Plus, I keep looking up.

    • Martin

      Exactly! That’s why I dread so much when Eugene’s coming back, because it always feels like Eugene’s just looking for an excuse to make a non-related joke (+ his voice is not the most pleasant voice one could listen to) but never really cares a tiny bit about the science which is talked about. I absolutely agree with your comment… Chuck is probably my favorite comedian there.

  • Arlsan

    I swear I read LightSaber.

  • Noel

    When Bill Nye is asked how to stop a solar sail, I think he should have answered the question as if it was worded, “How do you stay in a stable orbit with a solar sail, since a solar sail will always encounter light pressure, causing it’s orbit to change constantly over time.” Of course we’re always moving in an orbit of some kind. Not really an informative answer.

  • Noel

    When Bill Nye is asked how to stop a solar sail, I think he should have answered the question as if it was worded, “How do you stay in a stable orbit with a solar sail, since a solar sail will always encounter light pressure, causing it’s orbit to change constantly over time.” Of course we’re always moving in an orbit of some kind. Not really an informative answer.

  • Vash

    This is slowly becoming STR with Bill Nye and Chuck Nice.

  • persephone977

    Thanks for a great episode on solar sails! I have written a science fiction chapter on the possibility of an interstellar sleeper ship using a solar sail, since its frozen cargo would not be worried about the time involved and a long acceleration/deceleration would be ideal for that kind of situation. It’s great to have a reference to confirm and/or edit what I’ve done…

  • Thanks, MizzouCogNeuro. Not sure which recommendation you’re referring to as marked as spam. We don’t tend to do that, so maybe it was a server thing. (That, unfortunately, does happen sometimes.)

  • o/ Thanks for reading, and answering, my question! I’ve been a The Planetary Society supporter for a long time and am thrilled that we’re so close to a (hopfully very successful) launch and mission for Lightsail A! Keep up the great work!

  • Andy Long

    Bill, why are you so agitated about terraforming Mars? You’re proposing 10 thousand year trips to Alpha-centauri, supposing we, as a civilization would survive long enough to realize that goal.

    What about bioforming Mars? What about launching a saturation of prokaryotes that would slowly, gradually condition the atmosphere in order to make it more hospitable for human kind? Sure it might take millions of years, but we might as well start the process shouldn’t we?

    • Martin

      The point is that once we are able to do THAT, we are first also able to fix our own planet. Right now our own planet which is already suitable for life in most places is totally but totally over our heads. We can’t even control our own weather, for crying out loud! How do you think we could start terraforming Mars in this stage. I’m sure Bill thinks it’s a good idea once we are able to control our own ecosystems. (That’s also what Neil always points out)

      • Taxil Necrobane

        And we will still not be able to make Mars habitable to human or even earth life if we pull that off. One: Mars does not have a robust magnetic sphere to protect the surface from deadly solar radiation seeing that it’s core is dead and cold. Two: it has a lower gravity pull than earth. it likely can’t hold onto a dense enough atmosphere due to that. Alongside reason 1#, how can it maintain a thick enough atmosphere to allow humans to breath it even if we alter the composition of the air? Humanity will be forced to live in underground bunkers and/or sealed ecology mega buildings. I say we will get much better return if we just colonize the moon first before we colonize Mars.

        • Andy Long

          Yep, I accept that those are significant challenges for culturing an atmosphere. However I challenge 2 of these assumptions: 1.) that cultivating an oxygen rich atmosphere wouldn’t create ozone to protect from UV radiation. 2.) that Mars can’t hold onto a dense enough atmosphere. If you suspend deposits of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide with the use of bacteria, the body is not holding on to any additional material, it just has displaced it into the atmosphere around the surface, no additional gravity required. (the carbon dioxide and methane gas might improve the air temperatures on Mars)

          The second point there involves a bit of physics that I would need a refresher and some time to work out the possibilities. Somebody else (*cough Bill) could look into that to see if it’s a possibility. I’ll give the math a whack and see what I come up with!

          • Taxil Necrobane

            I Had to think about this problem of making more earth like atmosphere and we will hit a brick wall. Mars needs water. LOTS of water and we have no means to deliver it to Mars. Yes it had oceans once in the past. But it’s all gone now and I bet it was evaporated away via the nearly unblocked solar winds. So unless we can create a device that re-create the magneto-sphere around Mars, that place can not be terraformed any time soon.

            Also, just WHY should we terraform Mars anyway? It’s a pristine environment as it is. If ‘Man made climate change’ on earth a bad thing, yet man made climate change on Mars a good thing? Lets just make colonies on other worlds that Man kind can live in, independent from earth in time, and learn all we can from that world and expand from there.

          • Andy Long

            There may be many ways of liberating the atomic materials from geological deposits to create more water. There is a lot of physics and math to do in order to explore these questions and they can’t be dismissed speculatively.

            At its increased distance from the sun, there may be significantly reduced radiation on the surface that could be reduced further by the formation of ozone. Again more math to do, but could you possibly get the surface radiation on mars to the equivalent of being in an MRI?

            Again, as for the ethical questions I think they’re secondary to the technical questions. Why and should are secondary to could. I think the future of humanities condition here on Earth will answer the question as to why we might want to. I understand that’s a cynical and arguable point, but I don’t think it’s worth dismissing either.

            Do you want to help me with the math? I have found some of the dimensions and assumptions to start working on these questions. I think I’m going to have some specific questions for Bill or Neil. We’ll see going forward if they will take a question or two!

          • Taxil Necrobane

            You can release all the ground water you want, there just isn’t as much water left on Mars for all that we need. The best I can think of is to find an asteroid that is made of mostly or entirely of ice and drop it to the surface there and do that many times as needed.

            I do not think that an ozone layer can stop all the harmful radiation from the sun. Again, we have to have a magnetic sphere around Mars for life to flourish. A surface radiation of MRI on a constant basis is still ruinous to life.

            Dear God man! Have you never read the original Frankenstein novel or even Jurassic Park? Ethics HAS to be first before anything else. Other wise we will stop being humans and start becoming monsters. Humanity will find it’s own solution one way or another, but I pray it will be a moral one. i do not want humanity’s fate to become a distopya world.

          • Andy Long

            Haha, well I do appreciate the spirit! While I don’t agree that the ethical quandaries should be the primary consideration, I understand how one can make the case. I believe you’re in the moral majority there. My opposition doesn’t come from a mantra of profit over people, it more of a deep seeded nihilism.

          • Taxil Necrobane

            I Had to think about this problem of making more earth like atmosphere and we will hit a brick wall. Mars needs water. LOTS of water and we have no means to deliver it to Mars. Yes it had oceans once in the past. But it’s all gone now and I bet it was evaporated away via the nearly unblocked solar winds. So unless we can create a device that re-create the magneto-sphere around Mars, that place can not be terraformed any time soon.

            Also, just WHY should we terraform Mars anyway? It’s a pristine environment as it is. If ‘Man made climate change’ on earth a bad thing, yet man made climate change on Mars a good thing? Lets just make colonies on other worlds that Man kind can live in, independent from earth in time, and learn all we can from that world and expand from there.

          • Taxil Necrobane

            Oh, I also forgot to add this too. My bad. Mars is (more or less) outside the ‘Goldilocks’ zone. So even if did load up Mars’s atmosphere with a ton of CO2 and methane, the sun light may likely be too weak to effectively warm up the world to anything close to earth norms. I have no idea how to over come that problem.

          • Andy Long

            I think that ignores and even flies in the face of the possibility of life on Titan, Enceladus, Europa, or Ganymede. Although I’ve eluded to this in the above discussion, I’m not actually looking to bioengineer an Earth doppelganger, but we might be able to push and improve the human body to adapt to new and different conditions in addition to some geoengineering. A combination of these efforts might prove useful. Short of that, hey, maybe there’s an ethical argument to be made for spreading the seeds of life throughout the cosmos for no other purpose than “life”!

          • Taxil Necrobane

            We have yet to confirm life on those other worlds, and I for one am not holding my breath over it. We would have a much easier time to create an altered branch of humans that could live out there than altering the whole planet. But why would we? We should at that point made much better tech that would protect us much better than tinkering with our DNA.

          • Andy Long

            Well, I think you’re in the minority there. There is pretty good evidence for life on Mars. There is not extraordinary evidence, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I think most scientists suspect we will find life on other planets. I can even hypothesize a climate model for biological panspermia. I think we’re going to learn that life is almost ubiquitous throughout the cosmos.

      • Andy Long

        Your point is well taken and not without its merits. However, in a closed system like Mars, much less dynamic absent flora, fauna and anthropic factors, we do have some rudimentary ideas about how certain simple organisms work; what they need to survive, what the biproducts of their life cycle is, etc. We could use this knowledge to set in motion the production of a climate more hospitable to us, a thicker atmosphere, then flora, and evapotranspiration. We could start making this concoction now, and add a little bit of salt and stir from century to century. I still say it’s something to think about!

        • Taxil Necrobane

          If we are to study that unique environment as it is. Then WHY are we going to alter it by terraform it? I say if we can find another world just like Mars, and use one as a control sample and the other one to experiment on.

          • Andy Long

            lol, well sure, I left nothing to say about the ethics of such a project. I hear ya on that point. However I operate in a realm of moral relativism. I think if you wanted to make a moral or ethical argument, one could just as well argue the opposite position: life, precious, rare blah blah, maybe even god? Idk. It’s not my directive on the topic of planetary ethics, but I can see your point and the other.

        • Taxil Necrobane

          If we are to study that unique environment as it is. Then WHY are we going to alter it by terraform it? I say if we can find another world just like Mars, and use one as a control sample and the other one to experiment on.

    • shashank

      It will take more than 10,000 years to terraform mars and will cost trillions of dollars and all of it will go waste because the magnetic field is very weak and atmosphere is continuously eroded. We already have bacteria there(few of them) which are lying in a dormant state inside the rovers and landers ,they don’t easily multiply and spread out like they do on earth because Martian conditions are very different from earth. Ozone layer alone is not going to do it ,you need a strong magnetic field to deflect solar flares.

  • Ralph Kramden

    When is Bill Nye going to learn how to pronounce Arctic? He says Artic twice at the 44:36 mark.

  • Yay Bill Nye filling the science journalism void in the US. I get frustrated when I hear of scientists who demean Nye and Tyson for stooping to do discourse with non-scientists. If not them, who? Tyson absolutely killed it on April 17, 2015 Larry Wilmore show battling pseudoscience. He brought highly non-scientific righteous anger into the discussion. Which is precisely what a responsible science advocate should do. The Planetary Society is the best! Go Lightsail!

  • Ethan

    39 minutes in, Bill says the Planetary Society’s annual meeting this year will be in Israel. I’m not finding any information about this on TPS’s website (http://www.planetary.org/get-involved/events/). Could you please direct me to more information about it? I’d love to attend!

  • dumbcook

    thank you, Neil, Chuck, Eugene, Bill and everyone behind the scenes. I’m sure the hate will follow for my ignorant comments but I am so very glad to have a program like this available. Born in another place and in different circumstances maybe I would have headed in to a different field and would have far more to contribute to the scientific community. However I am a simple cook and this show is a bright spot in my week. Every Monday I love to listen to the interviews or questions, I have my favorite episodes and comedians but I appreciate all of the content. Nothing has yet to disappoint and I say thank you. I loved Bill’s commentary on the science based star trek future form the first TV show. I hope all the haters in the comments might wake up and appreciate what is offered here.

  • me

    when is tyson getting a youtube channel? I WANT TO SEE HIS DEBATES/TALKS!

  • Andy Long

    I think you’re making assumptions that nobody is qualified to say for certain. Yes I get it, it is a project on a scale much larger than 10k years. But it’s purpose is arguably more profound and significant than mere exploration.

    As a biologist I can tell you with absolute certainty that there are species of bacteria and protists that CAN and WILL survive even in the vacuum of space, and bombardment of cosmic rays. I’m almost certain they can be engineered to thrive in such conditions.

    What will it cost? What does it matter. It wouldn’t be a waste. Cost is kind of one of my points anyways. If you set a process in motion, arbitrated by bacteria (who are cheap, easy, and reproduce themselves) you get an enormous return on your investment.

    I’m not sure why there are so many nay-sayers in this, what I thought would be, an enlightened crowd of folks who believe in possibilities. Could it ever be fit for human life? Who’s to say? Perhaps not. But life? We can culture something there, I’m 99.9% sure of that!

  • Actually, StarTalk has a YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/startalkradio. Among other playlists, we have one for the Asimov Debates at the AMNH – but they haven’t posted last night’s yet!

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