Solar Sail Launch Failure Remains Mysterious

The true saga behind the failure of the privately-backed Cosmos 1 solar sail is a bit of a head-scratching mystery.

Launched skyward on June 21 atop a Russian sub-launched Volna rocket, the spacecraft may have actually made it into Earth orbit. That's the view of The Planetary Society, the public membership space group that, along with Cosmos Studios, bankrolled the $4 million solar sailing project.

Despite the setback, a new solar sail mission is under consideration.

"The lack of data from the launch trajectory makes it hard to know what happened to the spacecraft," said Louis Friedman, the Project Director and Executive Director of The Planetary Society based in Pasadena, California. "Knowing that the spacecraft actually began working in orbit would help The Planetary Society team determine its next steps in planning a new solar sail mission," he explained in a press statement today.

Signal to noise
The flight of Cosmos 1 was intended to become the first solar sail spacecraft, designed to sail on light, using photons for propulsion in Earth orbit.

The manufacturer of the Volna rocket, Makeev Rocket Design Bureau, has reported that the first stage of the rocket fired improperly and prematurely shut down. That sent the entire vehicle - rocket and payload - into the Barents Sea after a flight of only several hundred kilometers.

But Cosmos 1 scientists at the Space Research Institute (IKI) in Moscow and at The Planetary Society have been analyzing signals received at ground stations after the launch. Those signals suggest they were transmitted from the spacecraft, perhaps in a low orbit. 

"It appears almost certain that we have received signals from the spacecraft after it was injected into orbit," said Viacheslav Linkin, project Science Manager from IKI in The Planetary Society's press statement. A "strong case" can be made that at least some of the signals are from Cosmos 1, Friedman added.
Other data received at Panska Ves, in the Czech Republic, and in Majuro, the Marshall Islands, were less convincing, but still correlated well with planned spacecraft transmissions. Also, the Panska Ves signal, although noisy, shows an apparent response to a ground command sent to the spacecraft during the first orbit.
Lessons learned
Friedman noted in the press statement that if a spacecraft signal were received from orbit, it would contradict the report that the spacecraft did not separate from the rocket. 
If Cosmos 1 did go into orbit, it most likely was one that was too low to be sustained, and the spacecraft would have quickly re-entered the atmosphere. Being a short-lived satellite, that's reason why the U.S. Strategic Command's network of satellite tracking sensors didn't spot Cosmos 1, Friedman suggested.
The Russian government will organize a commission to investigate the accident. 
"We think the signals received are most likely from the spacecraft having made it to orbit, despite Makeev saying that it did not," Friedman told "We do want, and are beginning now to work out how, to do it again. All we need is additional funding and a new rocket."
Friedman said the Cosmos 1 team is still assembling lessons learned. More money itself wouldn't have solved any of the rocket woes, he said, "nor do we believe that money played any role in our difficulties with the use of Volna."
One lesson learned, however, Friedman added: "We need to be more involved in understanding launch vehicle interface questions." 
"Since we have confidence in our spacecraft, and even believe it might have made orbit and begun to work, it is hard to say we learned much with it," Friedman concluded. "As one member of our team put it -- we didn't even get a chance to fail."

  • The Post-launch Story

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.