PASADENA — A Russian nuclear submarine launched a rocket Thursday to test a prototype of an American-sponsored spacecraft that sails on the feeble pressure of the sun’s rays.
However, it was unclear Thursday evening whether the results of the test will ever be known. The instruments that recorded the flight may have been lost.
The rocket blasted from the submarine at 5:33 p.m. PDT (4:33 a.m. Friday Moscow time) as it cruised beneath the Barents Sea north of Russia.
“Beautiful. Beautiful. It looks beautiful,” Louis Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society, said via satellite phone as he watched the launch from a nearby ship.
Following the launch, the rocket was expected to deploy two Russian-built solar sails, each four stories tall, in a test of how well the lightweight blades unfurl in space from tightly packed canisters the size of a loaf of bread.
The Cosmos 1 project is coordinated by the society, a space exploration advocacy group founded by Friedman, former Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Bruce Murray and the late astronomer Carl Sagan. The $4 million project is underwritten by Cosmos Studios, led by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, and the cable A&E Network.
“We couldn’t be happier and more exhilirated. It’s just a thrill. My only regret is that Carl isn’t here,” said Druyan, speaking by telephone from her Ithaca, N.Y., home to Planetary Society members who monitored the launch from Pasadena.
Project leaders said it would take several days before they could confirm the sail panels deployed as planned. While the sails themselves would burn up in the atmosphere, a capsule that recorded video and still images of the deployment was expected to bounce down on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
But project members could not immediately detect the signals they needed to track down the capsule, leading Murray to speculate that there was only a 50-50 chance that any data would be recovered.
“There is either a reasonably intact re-entry capsule which is hiding its presence for one reason or another, or there’s a crater,” Murray said.
The 31-minute suborbital test had been delayed earlier this year when the spacecraft was damaged during testing.
The test flight was made in preparation for the Cosmos 1 project’s expected launch of a complete spacecraft this winter. Project leaders have not decided whether that launch would proceed even without data from Thursday’s test, said John Garvey, a project engineer.
Cosmos 1 would send into Earth orbit a pinwheel of eight similarly sized blades that will harness, for the first time ever, the gentle push of sunlight to propel it farther and farther into space.
The spacecraft should be easily visible from Earth during the course of the mission, expected to last weeks or months.
Proponents envision the day when spacecraft will be able to cruise from planet to planet – and beyond.
“At least today, this is the only way we know of getting to the stars,” Garvey said.
The solar sail uses the steady pressure of photons hitting it to move it forward, just as a conventional sail uses the wind.
Light-driven spacecraft will be slow to accelerate, but with time should reach velocities that will make travel across great distances possible. The sails could theoretically attain speeds 10 times greater than NASA’s Voyager I and II, which travel at 38,000 mph.
The sun’s weak but steady pressure is sufficient to propel solar sail craft within the bounds of the orbit of Jupiter; beyond that, scientists envision using lasers to push sails.
The solar sail is made of lightweight Mylar about a quarter the thickness of a garbage bag. Because it is powered by sunlight, a solar sail spacecraft would require little or no propellant.
The Cosmos 1 spacecraft expected to launch this fall is designed to gradually spiral away from Earth as sunlight pushes its 720 square yards of sail. The 88-pound craft, built by the Babakin Space Center in Russia, will carry two cameras and instruments to monitor its progress.
If Cosmos 1 is a success, Murray said, the next project may be a solar-sail mission to the moon.
NASA has said it wants to launch an interstellar probe powered by space sails by 2010. A Texas company, Encounter 2001, wants to launch a solar sail by 2003 to carry messages and bits of human DNA beyond the solar system.
On the Net: http://www.planetary.org/solarsail/index2.html