Solar sail experiment an apparent failure


The Planetary Society's attempt to launch a satellite containing a solar sail experiment appeared to have failed yesterday, as ground controllers in Russia lost contact with the craft about the same time that the launch rocket stopped firing.

The Cosmos 1 spacecraft - powered only by light reflected off a bank of 49-foot sails - was to be boosted into its final orbit by a small rocket scheduled to fire after the main booster expended its fuel. But controllers received no data indicating that the second rocket had fired, and ground-based tracking stations saw no evidence that the craft was in its predicted orbit.

The converted intercontinental ballistic missile carrying the craft launched at 12:46 p.m. from the Russian submarine Borisoglebsk, which was submerged in the Barents Sea. The first part of the launch went according to plan, Louis D. Friedman, the Planetary Society's president, said from Moscow, but controllers later observed a great deal of "noise" in the signal. They did not hear from the craft again.

Gloom fell over the society's mission control as scheduled contact times for the craft passed without a signal.

The Planetary Society, based in Pasadena, Calif., describes itself as the largest space advocacy group on Earth.

Cosmos 1 was to remain in orbit for 30 days. Researchers had hoped to show that photons hitting the craft's Mylar sails would push it into a slightly higher orbit. The long-term goal would be to use a larger sail to propel a craft to other planets, using only enough fuel to launch the craft into an initial Earth orbit. Yesterday's launch marked the first realistic test of the concept.

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