Cosmos 1, a privately-funded spacecraft that aimed to demonstrate solar sailing for the first time, appears to have been lost in space. Staff from the Planetary Society, the nonprofit organization running the project, say ground controllers have failed to make contact with the craft since its launch yesterday, but they are still hoping that it might have reached orbit and for some reason remained silent. But officials from the Russian Space Agency (RKA), which launched the spacecraft on board a converted ICBM from a Russian navy submarine in the Barents Sea, believe the rocket's first stage has failed. "We haven't given up yet, but it does look pretty grim," project director Louis Friedman says from the control center in Moscow.
The plan was for the Russian Volna rocket to lift Cosmos 1 into a 825-kilometer high orbit and then, after several days of testing, the craft would inflate 15-meter long booms to unfurl its eight solar sails. Made of ultra-light reflective Mylar, the sails would be angled so that sunlight falls directly on them. The project's goal was to show that the pressure of photons bouncing off the sails was enough to slowly push Cosmos 1 into a higher orbit. Space researchers across the globe were keenly watching the mission as the main space agencies also have plans to use solar sails to reach parts of the solar system inaccessible to chemical rockets (Science, 17 June, p. 1737).
Friedman says the RKA's telemetry from the launch suggested a booster failure, but it is still being analyzed. Soon after the launch, some tracking stations along Cosmos 1's predicted orbit did pick up signals that seemed to come from the spacecraft, but then silence. Now, researchers from Russia's Space Research Institute (IKI) in Moscow are listening hard and sending up commands that would turn on the craft's transmitter. Even if the rocket did succeed in getting Cosmos 1 into orbit, Friedman says, "it may be so low that the orbit decays quickly," in which case the craft would fall back to Earth.
Although Friedman acknowledges it's a longshot, there is one scenario the project's team are all rooting for: Cosmos 1 is designed to be autonomous, so even though it remains silent, it may be doing its work and in several days time will unfurl its sails and be visible to the naked eye as a bright spot hurtling across the heavens.