Russian solar sail launch fails because of engine failure

A Russian attempt to launch a solar sail vehicle designed to be propelled by pressure from sunlight failed yet again because the booster rocket suffered engine failure soon after it blasted into space, the state news agency RIA-Novosti reported.

The launch was part of a joint Russian-U.S project attempting the first controlled flight of a solar sail.

An unnamed official in Russia's Northern Fleet told the news agency early Wednesday that the engine failure occurred 83 seconds after the launch from a submerged Russian submarine in the northern Barents Sea at 11:46 p.m. Moscow time (1946 GMT) on Tuesday.

"After 83 seconds, the engine of the booster rocket stopped working and the spacecraft did not enter orbit," the official said on condition of anonymity. He added that a search was underway for the solar sail and the Volna booster rocket and an investigation would study what went wrong.

Lidia Avdeyeva, a spokeswoman for the Lavochkin institute involved in the project, told The Associated Press she could not confirm the information but said that if the engine had failed then the vehicle would have fallen back to Earth.

Past attempts to unfold similar devices in space have failed.

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.

In 2001, Russia launched another such experiment, but the device failed to separate from the booster.

The project involved Russia's Lavochkin research production institute and was financed by an organization affiliated to the U.S. Planetary Society.

"If the engine did fail, that would be an embarassment because we had problems with the launch vehicle before," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, who was at the Lavochkin institute to monitor the event.

During the first 45 minutes after launch, in two stages the solar sail was to have separated from the booster and then an engine still powering the device. But space officials lost all signals from the spacecraft.

The spacecraft, called "Solar Sail," weighs about 110 kilograms (242 pounds) and is designed to go into an orbit more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) high.

The "Solar Sail" is designed to be powered by eight 49.5-foot-long (15.1-meter-long) sail structures resembling the blades of a windmill.

Each blade can be turned to reflect sunlight in different directions so that the craft can "tack," much like a sailboat in the wind.

The aim is for streams of solar energy particles to push a giant, reflecting sail through space the way wind propels sailboats across water.

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.

Space-sail technology is 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 and NASA has invested about US$30 million in this field.

MARIA DANILOVA, Associated Press Writer

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