Scientists are eagerly watching the latest milestone in space exploration. This week, a privately funded US-Russian team launched a new kind of spacecraft, one powered by the sun. But the Russian 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.
Mission Control Center at the Pasadena Planetary Society may not look all that impressive but what scientists are doing here has the potential to take space travel to a new level.
A Russian submarine in the Barents Sea is the launch pad for Cosmos 1, a small unmanned rocket carrying the world's first Solar Sail spacecraft.
Using conventional fuel, the booster rocket should take COSMOS 1 to an orbit 800 kilometers above the earth. After five days, eight solar sails will unfurl; forming a giant windmill, the size of a ten-story building. Each blade can be maneuvered independently to catch the light of the sun.
According to the Planetary Society's Bruce Betts, the sails can generate enough energy to propel the spacecraft around the Earth, and in the future, through deep space. "Once you get in the near vacuum of space and you get the light pushing on a large reflective sail with a very light spacecraft, you can actually get that to push you just like wind pushing on you."
Cal Tech scientist Bruce Murray says harnessing the power of the sun will make travel between solar systems not only possible, but faster "This is the only technology we know about that could conceivably go to the stars."
The craft will start out slowly and gradually pick up speed, eventually circling the earth once every 100 minutes. If all goes according to plan, the craft will begin beaming back live pictures during its 30 day mission.
Planetary Society founder Louis Friedman believes the project is the best hope yet for future interstellar missions. The idea that you can travel without using fuel and carry heavy payloads back and forth between the planets or rendezvous with other objects and be able to come back from them, becomes much more practical.
The reflective material used for the solar sails will make the spacecraft visible from the ground. NASA and other space agencies with bigger budgets are watching the mission, perhaps to get a closer look at the future of space travel.