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Solar Sail Crashes to Earth

A prototype solar sail has crashed during its first test flight, but the accident will not delay the spacecraft’s maiden voyage later this year, organizers say.

A prototype of the Cosmos 1 spacecraft crashed during last Thursday’s test flight in Russia, organizers confirmed on Monday. Initial reports said the test flight had been successful.

Launched from a submerged Russian nuclear submarine in the Barents sea, the spacecraft failed to separate from its booster rocket due to what mission experts say was a “software glitch.”

“The spacecraft never even turned on,” said Jim Cantrell, the mission’s contract manager. “We got seismic confirmation that it hit the ground, apparently with a thud.”

Trapped inside the third stage of the booster rocket, a converted nuclear missile, the solar sail fell back to Earth somewhere on the Russian Kamchatka peninsula.

The suborbital mission was designed to test how well the ship’s lightweight solar sails unfurl in space from tightly packed canisters the size of a loaf of bread.

Solar sails work much like the sails on boats, except they are pushed by sunlight instead of wind.

The $4 million mission is coordinated by the Planetary Society and funded by Cosmos Studios and the cable A&E Network.

Currently, Makeev Rocket Design Bureau engineers in Russia are trying to determine exactly what happened.

According to The Planetary Society’s website, data gathered from the rocket while it was in flight suggests the separation command was terminated by an on-board fail-safe.

The fail-safe was pre-programmed to override the separation in case of excessive shaking, the site says.

Because the suborbital flight was only a test mission, The Planetary Society isn’t too worried, Cantrell said.

“Frankly, it’s a launch vehicle failure of the type that’s fairly common,” Cantrell said. “It happens to everybody.”

Cantrell said the full orbital mission of Cosmos 1, set for later this year, will go off as planned.

“We don’t read anything particularly good or bad into this,” he said. “This is the difference in philosophy we have from typical U.S. government programs where it has to work the first time. These things are called tests for a reason.”

The Planetary Society is relatively sanguine about the crash, because it cost only a portion of the project’s $4 million budget.

Plus, the test flight was insured by a Russian company, Megaruss, for about $1 million.

With the insurance money, Cantrell says the Planetary Society is considering two options: launching another test flight, or building a backup of the final spacecraft.

The problem with launching another test flight is the schedule, Cantrell said, because engineers have already started building the solar sail spacecraft.

“If we did fly another (test mission), it might not be in time enough to essentially influence the design of the sail blades if there’s a problem,” he said.

The option of building a second solar sail spacecraft, to back up the first, would cost quite a lot more money.

However, Cantrell said the construction of a duplicate solar sail is probably what will happen.

Although the suborbital test flight didn’t work, Cantrell said there is still something to be gained from it.

Crews are currently combing the Kamchatka Peninsula for the wreckage, so that engineers can confirm that the spacecraft failed to separate from the launch rocket.

As well as learning what happened and taking steps to prevent it next time, the $1 million insurance money rides on whether or not the spacecraft separated form the rocket.

“That’s important to the insurance company,” Cantrell said. “Their determination of cause is going to be very important to whether we get reimbursed.”

The Planetary Society will also try to salvage some of the gear. If another suborbital test flight is attempted, salvaged parts will cut down the time required to put another prototype together.

“We’re not hoping that it’s all recovered intact,” Cantrell said, “but it sure would be nice.”

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