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Rocket Fails During Launch of World-First Solar Sail Spacecraft


Ann Druyan, widow of astronomer Carl Sagan, waits at Planetary Society headquarters for word about the fate of a solar sail spacecraft
Russia's space agency says a booster rocket failed during the launch of the world's first solar-sail spacecraft. It appears the craft did not reach orbit, although scientists involved in the joint U.S.-Russian project say they may have detected faint signals from it.

Russian space officials say the rocket suffered engine failure soon after launch late Tuesday from a submarine in the Barents Sea.

The rocket was carrying Cosmos 1 a privately-funded unmanned spacecraft designed to be propelled entirely by solar power.

Scientists at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, who organized the mission, reported hearing faint signals Tuesday from Cosmos 1. They said signals were picked up after a lengthy search once the craft stopped communicating soon after launch, and could indicate it is in a lower orbit than intended.

But Russian officials say the defense ministry has begun a search for possible debris, because they believe the craft failed to reach orbit.

Yelena Gontaryova, a spokeswoman for the Russian state rocket center, said according to the data received the rocket engine shut down 83 seconds into the flight and a commission is now looking into why this happened.

Cosmos 1 was breaking new ground as the world's first spacecraft to be propelled by photons in the sun's rays striking its solar sails.

The solar-sail vehicle weighed about 110 kilograms and was designed to go into orbit more than 800 kilometers high. It was designed to be powered by eight 15-meter sail structures resembling the blades of a windmill.

Scientists say this could have major implications for future long-distance space travel, because a spacecraft would be much lighter without having to carry chemical fuel.

Private funding for Cosmos 1 came mostly from the Planetary Society and an entertainment company linked to it. The society was founded by the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan.

The space vehicle was developed in Russia by the Lavochin Association, a space and aviation design bureau, with support from the Academy of Science. The Russian military supported the mission by converting an intercontinental missile to launch the $4 million craft.