Solar Sail Spacecraft Set for Launch

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
Updated June 20, 2005

The Planetary Society, a U.S. nonprofit group devoted to space exploration, plans to launch the world's first solar sail spacecraft tomorrow.

Cosmos 1 will be launched from a submerged Russian submarine in the Barents Sea and carried into orbit by a converted intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Initially orbiting the Earth at an altitude of about 500 miles (800 kilometers), the spacecraft will gradually move outward by solar sailing—propelled by the pressure of light particles from the sun striking the craft's eight triangular sails.

The journey has no destination. The mission's goal is simply to prove that solar sail technology works.

Space sails carry no fuel and can continue accelerating over almost unlimited distances. This prompts scientists to envision a time when the technology may be used for future travel between planets in our solar system. Someday solar sails might be used to send astronauts to new worlds around other stars.

"This is the only technology known that could lead to practical interstellar flight," said Louis Friedman, the executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California. "But before that, the idea of going back and forth between the planets without having to carry fuel is a very efficient idea."

Swords into Plowshares

NASA, the European Space Agency, Japan, and Russia all have developed solar sails, but none has yet tried to prove that the sails can propel a spacecraft under controlled flight.

Friedman, who serves as the Cosmos 1 project director, is no stranger to the technology. He headed NASA's solar sail initiative back in the 1970s. That program was ultimately scrapped partly because of financial constraints.

The new mission, budgeted at a mere four million dollars (U.S.), is a privately funded initiative. The price tag is relatively cheap thanks to Russia's low-cost launch system.

The spacecraft will be launched from a Russian nuclear submarine and carried by an ICBM that once belonged to the Soviet military arsenal.

Strategic-arms-reduction agreements between the U.S. and Russia stipulate that Russia must get rid of many of its missiles. Instead of simply destroying them, the Russians have been trying to use up the missiles for commercial purposes, such as the Cosmos 1 launch.

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