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The Cosmos-1 solar sail project was privately funded by the US-based Cosmos Studios via the Planetary Society and developed at NPO Lavochkin's Babakin Center in Khimki during the first decade of the 21st century. The low-budget project became possible thanks to the use of a virtually unmodified ballistic missile launched during a regular exercise of the Russian navy. If successful, it could be the world's first vehicle to use solar sail to propel itself in space.

First attempt

Published: 2001 July 19; updated: July 23

After several days of confusion, Russian space officials confirmed Western reports that the solar sail experminet launched on July 19, 2001, had failed. The initial Russian statements indicated that the experiment had been a success. However as it transpired, the third stage of the missile and the payload likely failed to separate, dooming the mission.

The R-29RL (RSM-50) ballistic missile, also known as Volna, carrying the solar-sailing spacecraft, dubbed Cosmos-1, blasted off from the submerged Borisoglebsk nuclear sub stationed in the Barents Sea at 8:31 p.m. EDT Thursday, July 19, 2001, (4:31 a.m. Moscow Time, July 20). After reaching an apogee of its ballistic trajectory at the altitude of about 400 kilometers, the Cosmos-1 spacecraft was expected to deploy a pair of fan-like sections of the solar sail, which would be held in place by an inflatable frame. The spacecraft then expected to reenter dense atmosphere and land, using inflatable heat shield at the Kura impact range in the Kamchatka Peninsula. The elements of the sail would burn up on the reentry.

The first launch of the solar sail was previously postponed from April 17 to April 26, 1 a.m. Moscow Time, and then it was delayed due to the damage of the spacecraft during pre-launch processing.

The partners in the project planned a second test, which would involve an orbital flight.

Preparations for the second attempt

Unlike the first attempt in 2001, when only a pair of fan-like sections of the solar sail were expected to be deployed on a ballistic trajectory, this time a 100-kilogram spacecraft with eight 75-square meter foil blades was to enter a 825-kilometer circular orbit around Earth with an inclination 78 degrees toward the Equator.

The mission was originally scheduled for January 2003, then for March 20, September and October 2003. The launch date then slipped into January and May 2004 and, finally, into 2005.

In February 2005, technical problems pushed the mission's launch window of March 1 to April 5, 2005, and further into April 2005. In March 2005, the launch was expected between April 20 and May 30, 2005.

At the end of March 2005, the spacecraft went through final vibration tests. To minimize the time the solar sail "blades" are folded, the folding operation was conducted only around March 25, 2005.

On May 24, 2005, the Cosmos solar-sailing experiment along with the inflatable Demonstrator-2R reentry device was delivered to Severomorsk for a pre-launch processing.

Around June 15, 2005, the Cosmos-1 and its orbital insertion stage was mated to the launch vehicle in Severomorsk port on the Barents Sea, where the submarine was based.

Second attempt

Published: 2005 July 1

For the second time last month, a launcher failure shattered hopes of a dedicated group of enthusiasts to test a novel technique in space propulsion.

The R-29RL (RSM-50) ballistic missile, also known as Volna, carrying the Cosmos-1 solar-sailing spacecraft blasted off from the submerged Borisoglebsk nuclear submarine stationed in the Barents Sea on June 21, 2005, at 23:46 Moscow Time. It was expected to separate from the launch vehicle at 23:52 Moscow Time, after 350 seconds of a powered flight.

Following the launch, the Russian navy commentator only confirmed the firing of the first stage. Later, a signal from the spacecraft was detected over a temporary ground station at Petropavlovsk, but not over Majuro on the Marshall Islands. US Strategic Command reported that their radar, used to track launches around the world, did not detect Cosmos-1. Later in the afternoon, the Planetary Society officials received a report from their representative in Majuro that "he thought actually he may have detected a weak signal."

As a result, the Panska Ves ground station in Czech Republic, as well as the Tarusa station some 130 kilometers from Moscow and the Medvezhi Ozera ground station were preparing to send contingency commands to the spacecraft trying to turn it on. Then, the Panska Ves ground station detected a possible signal.

According to the Planetary Society, data from Panska Ves showed that "the station also reportedly saw some similar kind of data, with similar kinds of patterns." This data gave hope that Cosmos-1 has reached at least some kind of orbit.

However, Russian space officials soon reported that Volna's first stage unexpectedly shot down 83 seconds after the launch and the rocket likely crashed near Novaya Zemlya Islands on the edge between Barents and Kara Sea, some 160 seconds after the launch. The vehicle did not carry self-destruct mechanism -- a standard system on a military version of the rocket. According to the representatives of the Makeev design bureau, which built the rocket, the stages of the vehicle had never separated, which, if correct, would make it practically impossible for the spacecraft to reach even the lowest possible orbit.

The Planetary Society expressed hope that there was a slim chance for the spacecraft to reach lower-than-planned orbit and even to initiate its solar sail deployment sequence automatically four days into the flight.

As hopes for recovering Cosmos-1 faded, the mission was declared a failure. The Planetary Society indicated it had no immediate plans to fund another attempt.

Cause of the Failure

Some months after the failed launch, Russian press reported that a failure of a turbopump caused the loss of the spacecraft.

Future applications

In 2006, Russian space agency ordered to use the Solar Sail platform, internally designated Spacecraft Solar Sail, or KASP, as a basis for a series of small scientific satellites to be launched by retired ballistic missiles into the launch vehicles.











Rockefeller Center's frescos depicting human achievements reflect in a giant blade of a solar sail on display in New York during the 2003 Centennial of Flight celebration. Click to enlarge: 400 x 300 pixels / 48K Copyright © 2003 Anatoly Zak

The solar-sailing spacecraft during pre-launch processing. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

The first attempt to launch solar-sailing spacecraft on a sub-orbital trajectory in 2001. Credit: KB Mash.

Authors of innovative solar sail technology hoped to use an exotic way to get into space. Credit: Planetary Society.

Artist rendering of the Cosmos-1 spacecraft deployed in orbit. Credit: Planetary Society.