At 12:46 p.m. PDT Tuesday, the world's first solar sail spacecraft, called Cosmos 1, is scheduled to take flight.
The vehicle designed to be propelled by the pressure of sunlight is to be launched into space from a Russian submarine as part of a joint Russian-U.S project attempting the first controlled flight of a solar sail, AP runs citing space officials.
As CNET News.com says, Cosmos 1 represents a unique and intriguing prototype for space exploration: a vehicle that is powered by light, not fuel. Eventually, solar sails could even offer a way to reach the stars.
A Volna booster rocket is to launch the unmanned spacecraft from a submerged Russian submarine in the northern Barents Sea at 11:46 p.m. Moscow time, said Konstantin Kreidenko, a spokesman for the Russian Space Agency.
The spacecraft, called "Solar Sail," weighs about 80 kilograms (175 pounds) and is designed to go into an orbit more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) high, Kreidenko said.
It should take the spacecraft 1 hour and 40 minutes to make a full orbit around earth.
The aim is for streams of solar energy particles to push a giant, reflecting sail through space the way wind propels sailboats across water. As the electromagnetic and corpuscular solar radiation falls on the mirror surface, it is supposed to create the pressure, which will set the spacecraft in motion.
Scientists believe that the pressure will originally be extremely weak: Solar Sail will start the space voyage at the speed of only one millimeter a second. A hundred days later, however, the probe will reach the speed of about 160,000 kilometers per hour.
Each blade can be turned to reflect sunlight in different directions so that the craft can "tack" much like a sailboat in the wind.
Once the "Solar Sail" reaches orbit, inflatable tubes will stretch the sail material out and hold it rigid in eight 49.5-foot-long (15.1-meter-long) structures resembling the blades of a windmill.
Some proponents have even speculated that orbiting lasers could be trained on the sail for propulsion when the spacecraft is far away from the sun, reports CNET News.com.
Solar sails are envisioned as a potential means for achieving interstellar flight in the future, allowing such spacecraft to gradually build up great velocity and cover large distances.
Scientists believe that the development has become a breakthrough in modern space exploration, which opens new horizons of energetic opportunities for mankind. A traditional spacecraft is capable of reaching Pluto's orbit in nine years only. If a spaceship uses the solar wind, it will be possible to halve this time.
The Solar Sail project will become the prototype of intergalactic spaceships of the future, which will be able to cover huge distances very fast and without any consumption any fuel.
The project involves Russia's Lavochkin research production association and is financed by the U.S. Planetary Society.
The mission's cost is estimated at Ђ3.3 million (US$4.03 million) by U.S. project organizers. According to BBC, the Cosmos-1 mission is privately funded - half the money will come from a TV studio.
Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society told SPACE.com: "Everything seems set, both with our spacecraft—on the rocket on the submarine—and with our plans for launch and operations."
Friedman said that everyone is excited and proud to have reached a point of launching the solar sail, "and a lot of nervousness about the mission."
A global-wide group of ground observers are ready to keep an eye and ear on Cosmos 1 once in Earth orbit. The mission will be controlled from the Lavochkin Association in Moscow. A project operations center will be located at The Planetary Society in Pasadena.
Attempts in the past to unfold similar devices in space have ended in failure.
In 1999, Russia attempted a similar experiment with a sun-reflecting device, but the deployment mechanism jammed and the device burned up in the atmosphere.
The experimental launch in July of 2001 ended up with a failure: the craft did not separate itself from the carrier rocket and burnt as it entered dense layers of the Earth's atmosphere.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has invested about $30 million in space-sail technology, something that existed solely in science-fiction novels a decade ago. Yet the reflective solar sail could power missions to the sun and beyond within a decade.
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