June 21, 2005

Russian Sub Launches Solar Sail Spacecraft

LOS ANGELES -- The world's first spacecraft designed to be propelled by the pressure of sunlight was launched toward orbit Tuesday from a Russian submarine under the Barents Sea.

Cosmos 1, a $4 million experiment intended to show that a so-called solar sail can make a controlled flight, lifted off at about 12:46 p.m. PDT as project organizers from The Planetary Society and Cosmos Studios monitored the launch from California. Confirmation of a successful launch was likely to take several hours.

Planetary Society co-founder Bruce Murray, citing the complexity of the new technology, confessed to butterflies about the mission. The spacecraft was launched atop a converted missile.

"There is a significant chance of failure," Murray said of the launch in subsequent events the spacecraft was designed to carry out. "This will be a great leap forward if ... it succeeds."

If all goes as planned, the spacecraft will unfurl its eight triangular sails, each nearly 50 feet long and just a quarter the thickness of a trash bag. Controlled flight, achieved by rotating each blade to change its pitch, would be attempted early next week.

Cosmos 1 was expected to orbit Earth once every 101 minutes and operate for at least a month.

The non-governmental project was organized by The Planetary Society, a Pasadena-based organization founded by the late astronomer Carl Sagan; Murray, who is a former Jet Propulsion Laboratory director; and JPL veteran Louis D. Friedman, the society executive director and Cosmos 1 project director.

Funding came largely from Cosmos Studios of Ithaca, N.Y., a science-based entertainment company that was founded by Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan.

"For me personally this is an emotional high-point," Druyan said, but added the deployment of the sails would be the highlight.

"That will be the true money shot," she said. "That's when we really hope to light up the world with ... the reflective panels of Cosmos 1."

Solar sails are seen as a means for achieving interstellar flight by using the gentle push from the continuous stream of light particles known as photons. Though gradual, the constant light pressure should allow a spacecraft to build up great speed over time, and cover great distances.

Such a craft would not have to carry chemical fuel to propel itself through space, and, according to advocates, would eventually achieve greater speed than a traditional spacecraft.

Although their control process is likened to the way sailboats tack in the wind, solar sails are not intended to rely on what is known as the solar wind - the stream of ionized particles spewing from the sun - which moves slower than light and with much less force.

Built in Russia by the Lavochkin Association and the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, Cosmos 1 was under the control of a mission operations center in Moscow linked to The Planetary Society's project center in an converted old barn in Pasadena.

Japan tested solar sail deployment on a suborbital flight and Russia deployed a solar sail outside its old Mir space station, but neither involved controlled flight.


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