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Solar Craft Falls Short of Cosmos

Russian officials say it crashed into the ocean before reaching orbit, despite the hopes of U.S. space enthusiasts behind the attempt.

June 23, 2005|David Holley and Alex Raksin | Times Staff Writers

An experimental satellite designed to test spacecraft propulsion by solar power crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff when the launch rocket shut down prematurely, Russian space officials said Wednesday.

But enthusiasts at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, which sponsored the flight, held out a slim hope that the craft, called Cosmos 1, made it into orbit, albeit one very different from the orbit that had been planned.

A news release issued by the Russian space agency early Wednesday said that the converted intercontinental ballistic missile that launched Cosmos 1 from a submarine in the Barents Sea had engine failure in its first stage 83 seconds after ignition -- well short of the estimated six minutes the ICBM's three stages were to fire.

"The space agency's official announcement about the failure on the 83rd second indicates that the spacecraft did not go into orbit," said an official at the Lavochkin Assn., the Russian firm that produced the spacecraft.

"The booster's failure means that the solar sail vehicle was lost," space agency spokesman Vyacheslav Davidenko told Associated Press. "The Russian navy is searching the area for the debris of the booster and the vehicle."

An investigation of the rocket's failure is likely because a similar converted ICBM is scheduled to launch a European mission in a few weeks.

By late Wednesday, a radar search of the skies by the U.S. Strategic Command had failed to find any trace of the missing satellite, further increasing the likelihood that it did not reach orbit.

Although they conceded that the prospects for the craft looked grim, officials at the Planetary Society said "the craft might have made it into orbit."

"We haven't given up hope yet," the society's president, Louis D. Friedman, said Wednesday. "There is some possibility that Cosmos 1 won't be lost."

Engineers poring over reams of tracking data from stations throughout the world think they have detected a faint satellite signal buried beneath the background noise from the antennas.

But the Planetary Society's project director, Bruce Betts, acknowledged that his team could be misinterpreting phantom data.

Betts said it was premature, though, to proclaim the craft's demise, given that tracking stations had logged signals on the same frequency and wavelength that the spacecraft had been programmed to transmit up to 81 minutes after its launch.

Cosmos 1 was launched on the Volna rocket at 12:45 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Tuesday. It had been scheduled to reach a 500-mile-high orbit and spend 30 days circling the Earth to determine whether pressure from photons impinging on its 49-foot-long Mylar panels could push it into a higher orbit.

The Planetary Society's news conference concluded with Ann Druyan, widow of astronomer Carl Sagan, placing part of the blame for the mission's possible failure on the space advocacy group itself. Druyan's Cosmos Studios in Ithaca, N.Y., provided the bulk of the $4 million funding for the project, which had long been Sagan's dream.

Alluding to the rickety two-story wooden house in Pasadena from which the society coordinated the Cosmos mission, Druyan said, "We arrogantly compared ourselves to the Wright Brothers, partly because we were operating out of modest surroundings.

"But the Wright Brothers had failed at five missions before they succeeded," she said. "This may be the down part of the story rather than the triumph we had hoped for, but this is not the end of the story."

Holley reported from Moscow and Raksin from Los Angeles.

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