Solar spacecraft set to sail

The world’s first solar sail spacecraft is set for launch on March 1, 2005 from a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea.

The Cosmos 1 team has announced that the world’s first solar sail spacecraft is 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.

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.

Once deployed, a network of Russian, American and Czech ground stations will track and receive data from the spacecraft.

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, however.

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 aluminised, 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 travelling across the night sky.