MOSCOW - An experimental satellite designed to test spacecraft propulsion by solar power crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff when the launch rocket shut down prematurely, Russian space officials said yesterday.
But the Planetary Society, the Pasadena, Calif., organization that sponsored the flight, held out a slim hope that the craft, called Cosmos 1, made it into orbit, albeit one very different from the orbit that had been planned.
A news release issued by the Russian space agency early yesterday said that the converted intercontinental ballistic missile that launched Cosmos 1 from a submarine in the Barents Sea suffered an engine failure in its first stage 83 seconds after ignition - well short of the estimated six minutes the ICBM's three stages were to fire.
A thorough investigation of the rocket's failure is likely because a similar converted ICBM is scheduled to launch a European mission in a few weeks.
By late yesterday, a radar search of the skies by the U.S. Strategic Command had failed to find any trace of the missing satellite, increasing the likelihood that it never reached orbit.
Although they conceded that the prospects for the craft looked grim, officials at the Planetary Society insisted that "the craft might have made it into orbit."
Engineers poring over reams of tracking data from stations throughout the world think they have detected a faint satellite signal buried beneath the background noise from the antennas. But the society's project director, Bruce Betts, acknowledged that his team could be misinterpreting "phantom data."
Betts insisted it was "premature," though, to proclaim the craft's demise, given that tracking stations had logged signals - on the same frequency and wavelength that the spacecraft had been programmed to transmit - up to one hour and 21 minutes after its launch.
Cosmos 1 was launched on the Volna rocket at 3:45 p.m. eastern time Tuesday. It had been scheduled to reach a 500-mile-high orbit and spend 30 days circling the Earth to determine whether pressure from photons impinging on its 49-foot-long Mylar panels could push it into a higher orbit.
The Planetary Society's news conference concluded with Ann Druyan, widow of noted astronomer Carl Sagan, placing part of the blame for the mission's possible failure on the space advocacy group. Druyan's Cosmos Studios in Ithaca, N.Y., provided the bulk of the $4 million funding for the project, which had long been Sagan's dream.
Referring to the two-story wooden house in Pasadena from which the society coordinated the Cosmos mission, Druyan said, "We arrogantly compared ourselves to the Wright Brothers, partly because we were operating out of modest surroundings.
"But the Wright Brothers had failed at five missions before they succeeded. This may be the down part of the story rather than the triumph we had hoped for, but this is not the end of the story."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.