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Solar Sail Spacecraft Encounters Problem

Scientists are trying to learn the fate of a space orbiter that was launched from a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea on Tuesday. The mission was intended to test a new propulsion system powered by light from the sun.

The project was organized by the Planetary Society, an 80,000 member space advocacy group, with help from Russian scientists, and using a launch platform provided by the Russian navy.

At first, the launch looked good. Just after noon California time, word came that launch of the spacecraft Cosmos 1 atop a Volna rocket seemed successful. Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, conveyed the news from Mission Control in Moscow.

"The flight is normal. The first stage has separated (cheers)," Mr. Friedman says.

Tension built, however, when data transmission stopped about the time of the final burn to send the spacecraft into orbit. Later analysis of data from the launch vehicle, said Louis Friedman in Moscow, provided unclear results.

"We do know that the Cosmos 1 spacecraft was launched, but we cannot at this time confirm that a successful orbit injection occurred," Mr. Friedman says.

Efforts by monitoring teams in the Kamchatka Peninsula, Marshall Islands, Czech Republic, and Russia failed to detect the spacecraft. The US military also searched unsuccessfully for the orbiter. Bruce Murray of the Planetary Society was troubled by the lack of information.

"Negative news is not necessarily good news in this case. On the other hand, we do not have direct evidence of a failure. It's worrisome, and it's not what we'd hoped to have happen," Mr. Murray says.

But failure was always a distinct possibility. Before launch, Mr. Murray said the project had a 50-50 chance of success.

The mission has been carried out on a shoestring budget. The four million dollars in funding came from Cosmos Studios, a science-based entertainment company, and several private donors. Cosmos chief executive Ann Druyan is the widow of astronomer Carl Sagan, who was renowned for popularizing the subject of space. She says regardless of the outcome, the project will give scientists needed information.

"Whatever we discover from this mission, if it's not a success, we'll still learn from it. You know, the way to the stars is hard," Ms. Druyan says.

Scientists say they will continue searching for signs that the spacecraft has successfully entered orbit.

The goal of the mission is to open a 30-meter solar sail four days after launch, and prove that light from the sun can power a spaceship. The new form of propulsion, say its advocates, could make the far reaches of space accessible.