Space and astronomy news and information for the American Southwest. Coverage includes Vandenberg AFB rocket and missile launches.

Solar Sail Launch Scheduled

Planetary Society News Release

2004 November 10

PASADENA, CA: The Cosmos 1 team announced today that the world’s first solar sail spacecraft will be set for launch on March 1, 2005 from a submerged submarine in the Barents Sea. Cosmos 1 – a project of The Planetary Society – is sponsored by Cosmos Studios.

“With the spacecraft now built and undergoing its final checkout, we are ready to set our launch date,” said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society and Project Director of Cosmos 1. “The precedent-setting development of the first solar sail spacecraft has had its ups and downs like a roller coaster ride, but now the real excitement begins.”

Cosmos 1’s mission goal is to perform the first controlled solar sail flight as the spacecraft is propelled by photons from sunlight. The Cosmos 1 launch period will extend from March 1 to April 7, 2005. The actual launch date will be determined by the Russian Navy, which directs the launch on the Volna rocket – a rocket taken from the operational intercontinental ballistic missile inventory.

“This whole venture is audacious and risky,” noted Bruce Murray, who co-founded The Planetary Society with Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman. “It is a testament to the inspiring nature of space exploration and to the desire of people everywhere to be part of the adventure of great projects.”

Sagan, Murray and Friedman founded The Planetary Society in 1980 to advance the exploration of other worlds and to seek other life. Launching a spacecraft to test an innovative and untried flight technology helps to fulfill the bold mission they envisioned for the organization. Sagan remained the President of The Planetary Society until his death in December, 1996.

Cosmos 1 will rocket into space on a submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Volna, from beneath the surface of the Barents Sea. A network of Russian, American and Czech ground stations will track and receive data from the spacecraft.

International cooperation is just one of the novel aspects of this privately funded mission. It is the first space mission conducted by a popular space interest organization, the first sponsored by a media company, and the first to test flight using only sunlight pressure. Sailing by light pressure is the only technology known that might carry out practical interstellar flight.

“Starting the countdown clock for the launch of Cosmos 1 on Carl’s birthday could not be more appropriate,” said Ann Druyan, Cosmos 1 Program Director and Carl Sagan’s professional collaborator and widow. “We have converted the delivery system for a weapon of mass destruction into a means for pioneering a way to set sail for the stars,” she added. “That’s Carl Sagan 101, a perfect embodiment of his life and vision.”

Druyan’s science-based media company, Cosmos Studios, has provided most of the funding for this project.

Several solar sail spacecraft have been proposed over the last few years, but none except Cosmos 1 has been built. NASA, and the European, Japanese and Russian space agencies all have solar sail research and development programs. Deployment tests have been conducted by the space agencies and more are being planned.

The Planetary Society, without government funds, but with support of Cosmos Studios and Society members, put together an international team of space professionals to attempt this first actual solar sail flight. The Space Research Institute (IKI) in Moscow oversaw the creation of the flight electronics and mission control software while NPO Lavochkin, one of Russia’s largest aerospace companies, built the spacecraft. American consultants have provided additional components, including an on-board camera built by Malin Space Science Systems.

Solar sailing is done not with wind, but with reflected light pressure - its push on giant sails can continuously change orbital energy and spacecraft velocity. Once injected into Earth’s orbit, the sail will be deployed by inflatable tubes, which pull out the sail material and make the structure rigid. The 600-square-meter sail of Cosmos 1 will have eight blades, configured like a giant windmill. The blades can be turned like helicopter blades to reflect sunlight in different directions, and the sail can “tack” as orbital velocity is increased. Each blade measures 15 meters in length and is made from 5-micron-thin aluminized, reinforced mylar – about 1/4 the thickness of a trash bag.

Once Cosmos 1 is deployed in orbit, the solar sail will be visible to the naked eye throughout much of the world, its silvery sails shining as a bright pinpoint of light traveling across the night sky.

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Copyright © 2004, Brian Webb. All rights reserved.