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Solar-Sail Enthusiasts Say Mission Lost, Possibly in Space

Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 28b
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5731.28b

Cosmos 1, a privately funded spacecraft that aimed to demonstrate solar sailing for the first time, appears never to have had a chance to unfurl its sails. But staff from the Pasadena, California-based Planetary Society, the nonprofit organization running the project, say tantalizing messages ground controllers received shortly after the craft's launch on 21 June hint that it might have made it into orbit. “We're hanging in there,” says project director Louis Friedman. “But it's an increasingly dim hope.”

Officials from the Russian Space Agency (RKA), which launched the spacecraft on board a converted ICBM from a submarine in the Barents Sea, believe the rocket's first stage failed, causing launcher and payload to crash into the sea. The plan was for the Volna rocket to lift Cosmos 1 into an 825-kilometer-high orbit. There researchers would have inflated booms to spread eight solar sails made of ultralight reflective Mylar, designed to show that the pressure of sunlight could slowly push Cosmos 1 into a higher orbit. The main space agencies hope to use solar sails to reach parts of the solar system inaccessible to chemical rockets (Science, 17 June, p. 1737). An earlier demonstration by the Planetary Society, also called Cosmos 1, failed on launch in 2001.

Although RKA's launch telemetry suggested a booster failure, some tracking stations along the planned orbit picked up signals that seemed to come from Cosmos 1. Researchers from Russia's Space Research Institute in Moscow continue to listen for the craft and are sending commands to turn on its transmitter. Even if Cosmos 1 did reach space, Friedman says, “it would be in a very low orbit and probably decayed quickly.” Still, Friedman says, “it would be nice to know the spacecraft worked.”

Friedman says the Planetary Society is talking to the mission's main sponsor, the entertainment company Cosmos Studios, and others about mounting another attempt. “We can still advance this whole thing,” he says. But after two failed attempts, “we'll never use a Volna again.”

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