Planetary Society sets date for launch of solar sail spacecraft? (updated PM 1:37)
PASADENA, California (AP)
A solar sail spacecraft designed to be propelled by the pressure of sunlight will be launched early next year, The Planetary Society said.
Cosmos 1 will be carried into Earth’s orbit by a converted intercontinental ballistic missile launched from a submerged Russian submarine in the Barents Sea, the space exploration organization said Tuesday.
A launch date of March 1 was scheduled, with a window to April 7, but the actual liftoff date will be determined by the Russian navy. Russian, American and Czech ground stations will track the craft.
The mission, costing just under $4 million (3.1 million), will attempt the first controlled flight of a solar sail.
Solar sails are envisioned as a means for achieving interstellar flight. Though very gentle, solar pressure should allow such spacecraft to gradually build up great speeds over time, and cover great distances.
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, said Louis Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society and project director of Cosmos 1.
When Cosmos 1 is in orbit, inflatable tubes will stretch the sail material out and hold it rigid in eight 49.5-foot-long (15.1-meter-long) structures resembling the blades of a windmill. Each blade can be turned to reflect sunlight in different directions so that the craft can “tack” much like a sailboat in the wind.
Cosmos 1 is a project of The Planetary Society, which was founded in 1980 by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, former Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Bruce Murray and Friedman, also a JPL veteran.
Cosmos 1 was built by the Russian aerospace company NPO Lavochkin. Most of the funding has come from Ithaca, New York-based Cosmos Studios, which was co-founded by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, to create science-based entertainment. Druyan noted that Sagan, who died in 1996, would have turned 70 on Tuesday.
“Starting the countdown clock for the launch of Cosmos 1 on Carl’s birthday could not be more appropriate,” she said in a statement.
A prototype of the society’s sail was launched by Russia in 2001 but the rocket did not develop enough thrust and the spacecraft failed to separate from the booster.
Cosmos 1 is designed to go into a nearly polar orbit more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) high and operate for a month. “We’ll be happy with a couple of weeks, even a few days,” Friedman said.
Covering 720 square yards (602 square meters), the sail should be visible as a bright pinpoint of light in the night sky.