Questions Cloud Launch of Cosmos 1 Solar Sail Spacecraft
Cosmos-1's launch may have looked like this. This image was taken during a 2001 test flight for the Cosmos-1 project. The test vehicle also launched from a submarine in the Barents Sea, seen here from the support ship. The blue jacket at the bottom right belongs to Louis Friedman.
Credit: The Planetary Society.

This story was updated at 8:55 p.m. EDT

Despite a jubilant Tuesday launch, the flight of a privately-funded solar sail remains unclear due to a lack of telemetry from the now-silent spacecraft, mission managers said.

"This is not what we'd hoped to have happen," said Bruce Murray, co-founder of the space advocacy group Planetary Society in charge of the mission. "Negative news is not good news."

The Planetary Society's Cosmos 1 spacecraft launched skyward atop a converted Cold War-era intercontinental ballistic missile, shot skyward at about 3:46 p.m. EDT (1946 GMT) from its Russian nuclear submarine launch pad positioned beneath the Barents Sea.

But with some apparently ambiguous telemetry, hints that their solar sail spacecraft and the potential of a launch vehicle anomaly, the actual state of Cosmos 1 is unclear.

An official statement from the Planetary Society stated that, though Cosmos 1 did launch Tuesday, flight controllers "could not confirm a successful orbit injection."

"We just don't know anything for sure,"said Emily Lakdawalla, Project Operations Assistant and Image Processing Coordinator for Cosmos 1 at The Planetary Society in Pasadena. "There's only lots of speculation."

Efforts to detect the spacecraft by U.S. Strategic Command, have apparently come up empty, mission commentators said. Mission managers are hoping that a contingency plan, which calls for several ground stations to command the orbiter to turn itself on, may make contact with Cosmos 1, but there may have been an anomaly with the spacecraft's Volna launch vehicle.

"So in sum we have some precious data and a lot of silence," said Cosmos 1 project director Louis Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society, from the mission's Moscow control center. "It looks like it may be a long night here in Moscow and a long day in Pasadena."

The $4 million solar sailing project is an undertaking of The Planetary Society, a public space advocacy group headquartered in Pasadena, California. The effort is sponsored by Cosmos Studios, a science-based entertainment company located in Ithaca, New York.

If successful, the Cosmos 1 solar sail will be the first to actually propel a spacecraft around Earth orbit using sunlight. The sail-carrying spacecraft was housed on the tip of the Volna rocket, which was launched by the Russian Navy.

First signals

Reports from a tracking station on the Kamchatka Penninsula states the spacecraft was not immediately detected. A second tracking station, on the island of Majuro in the central Pacific Ocean, also did not detect Cosmos 1's signal. Mission managers said they did not expect to receive good telemetry signals from either ground station.

"This isn't necessarily unexpected," Lakdawalla said. "Petropavlovsk was a marginal contact, and it would have been happening while the spacecraft was spinning rapidly and thrusting, not an easy signal to deal with."

Some Doppler readings were initially detected, then lost. But later analysis of those signals indicated that Cosmos 1 fired its engines as programmed for an orbital insertion burn, mission managers said.

Ground observers have yet to detect direct telemetry from Cosmos 1, they added.

Cosmos 1 was expected to orbit the Earth at roughly a 500 mile (800 kilometer) altitude. It was designed to gradually raise its orbit by solar sailing - using the pressure of light particles - photons --from the Sun upon its luminous sails.

Cosmos 1 was built by the Lavochkin Association and the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Russia.

Anxious minutes and days ahead

Shortly before the rocket carrying the solar sail lifted off, Friedman anxiously awaited at Lavochkin. "Everything is basically ok, and we are relaxed here. Except me...I am not relaxed," he said.

A little over six minutes after liftoff, Cosmos 1 was expected to separate from the Volna rocket, but flight controllers have not confirmed that event.

Some ten minutes into its flight, the solar sail was slated to rise into view of a portable ground station situated at Petropavlovsk on Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, but other than a few Doppler signals, the probe was silent.

The next step called for a kick motor to start firing for some 231 seconds to inject the solar sail into Earth orbit, though again flight controllers have not confirmed orbital insertion.

Cosmos 1 mission controllers hope today's mission goes better than a previous test flight. That 2001 flight, a suborbital space shot, failed when the two-sail spacecraft was unable to eject from its Volna launch vehicle. However, there is no connection between that prior launch failure and today's mission, the state of which is still undetermined.

Visible to the naked eye

If all has gone according to plan, Cosmos 1 will orbit the Earth once every 101 minutes. But launch is only the beginning for the Cosmos 1 spacecraft.

Planetary Society spokesperson Susan Lendroth told SPACE.com that several days' worth of checks will be conducted to ensure Cosmos 1 is functioning properly.

If all checks out, Cosmos 1 will be ready to unfurl its sails in four days.That's enough time for all the air that might have been trapped in the solar sails when they were packed to leak out to the vacuum of space. Cosmos 1 is designed to inflate hollow tubes along the edge of each of its eight sail blades with nitrogen gas, with four blades deploying at a time, mission managers said.

Once the sails are unfurled, the schedule calls for rotation of the sail blades, followed by use of the blades to control orientation of spacecraft.

With sails unfurled, Cosmos 1 will be bright enough to be easily visible to the naked eye.

To look for Cosmos 1, check out: http://www.planetary.org/solarsail/watch/