Image: Solar sail
Babakin Space Center  /  Planetary Society
An artist's conception shows the Cosmos 1 solar sail fully unfurled in orbit. The sail is pushed by the pressure of solar radiation on its eight thin panels, and would be visible to the naked eye from Earth.
updated 11/9/2004 8:09:51 PM ET 2004-11-10T01:09:51

A solar-sail spacecraft designed to be propelled by the pressure of sunlight will be launched early next year, the Planetary Society said Tuesday.

Cosmos 1 will be carried into orbit by a converted intercontinental ballistic missile launched from a submerged Russian submarine in the Barents Sea, the space exploration organization said.

A launch date of March 1 was scheduled, with a window open until 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, will attempt the first controlled flight of a solar sail.

Solar sails are envisioned as means for achieving interstellar flight. Though very gentle, solar pressure should allow such spacecraft to gradually build up great velocity 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-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.

Most of the funding has come from Ithaca, N.Y.-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 was built by the Russian aerospace company NPO Lavochkin, and Moscow's Space Research Institute oversaw development of flight electronics and mission control software.

Among American components is an onboard camera built by San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems, builder and operator of the camera aboard NASA's Mars Global Surveyor among others. That camera and a Russian panoramic camera will be used to make images of the sails in flight, Friedman said.

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 (600 square meters), the sail should be visible as a bright pinpoint of light in the night skies.

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