By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Solar sailing was first envisaged in 1924 by Russian scientist Fredrich Tsander, but only now has the concept become technologically feasible. The chief obstacle has always been size. Sunlight pressure is extremely weak — the amount of force on a solar sail is about the equivalent of the weight of a postage stamp — so in order to make headway a solar sail must be huge. In the 1970s, Friedman worked on an early sail project for JPL when NASA was hoping to rendezvous with Halley’s comet. That didn’t happen because back then the technology didn’t exist to assemble a large enough structure in space.
The present breakthrough has come from scientists at Russia’s Babakin Space Center, who have developed a way to build strong, lightweight inflatable forms. Each of the Mylar sails will be held taut by long thin nitrogen-filled struts, which will only be inflated to their final configuration once the craft reaches outer space. Cosmos 1 will be in effect the world’s largest and most elaborate balloon sculpture, a gigantic aerospace retort to Jeff Koons.
THE PLANETARY SOCIETY is not the only organization developing solar sails. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are also researching this technology, yet both lag far behind the MOM and POP tag team. NASA has tested models in a ground-based facility using high-powered lamps as a photon wind source, but the agency doesn’t expect to undergo deployment trials until 2005, and an actual flight will probably not take place until at least 2007. The ESA and the German Aerospace Center have also conducted ground tests using their own sail material.Artists’ renderings of the solar sail mission
Cosmos 1 will not only be the first solar sail in space, but also the first ever international privately funded space mission. While some of the funding comes from the Planetary Society itself, through its 100,000 members worldwide, the project has been financed in large part by Cosmos Studios, a science-based entertainment and education company founded by Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan. Speaking by phone from Ithaca, New York, Druyan tells me that when Friedman came to her with the proposal, she saw it as an opportunity to honor Sagan’s legacy and also to participate in a potentially epochal innovation. “It was like being given the chance to outfit the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop,” she notes, referring to the business in Dayton, Ohio, in which the brothers honed their mechanical skills. Though the origins of Cosmos 1 are higher up the technological food chain, from the start the project has been driven more by the genius of tinkerers than by the clang of cash registers.
Above all, this radical craft has been made possible by the contingent necessity of the Russian space program, which even in its heyday always demanded from its engineers more rocket for the ruble. Roald Sagdeev, a member of the Planetary Society’s board and now a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, was formerly director of the Soviet’s Space Research Institute. Sagdeev tells me that the technology used to make Cosmos 1 was originally developed for the VEGA mission to Venus in the mid-1980s. The Soviets wanted to deploy a balloon in the Venusian atmosphere and had originally teamed up with a French space agency that was going to make the inflatable craft. When the French pulled out, Russian engineers were left with little time to pull together an alternate solution. “I personally was very skeptical it could be done,” Sagdeev says. But a couple of young Babakin engineers managed to pull it off, and it is still the only extraterrestrial ballooning experience.
THE INFLATABLE TECHNOLOGY is not the only innovative aspect of the Cosmos 1 project. Prior to the launch the whole ensemble will be folded up and stuffed into the nose cone of a converted intercontinental ballistic missile. The ICBM will deliver its payload into space from a submarine in the Barents Sea, one of Russia’s nuclear-missile fleet dismantled under the terms of the START II treaty. “We assume this one was pointed at North America,” Friedman says, but the Russians won’t say exactly where.
As weapons of mass destruction, ICBMs were never designed to fly into space, but Babakin scientists have adapted another piece of military technology to boost the de-nuked rockets beyond their usual range. The critical part is something called a “de-orbit motor,” which is normally used to bring back spy satellites. In the solar-sail mission this will be used as a “kick” stage to give the projectile an extra boost and propel it to a height of 1,000 kilometers. So far the Russians have done just a single test of this hardware, and Cosmos 1 will be the first real application of the concept. It’s nail-biting stuff, but Friedman notes that they don’t have the budget for expensive trials — they simply have to hope that on the big day it will all work according to plan.
The one test that has been conducted is a stark reminder of the risky nature of the space business. In July 2001, a suborbital test flight of the craft failed to separate from the third stage of its rocket and never deployed. The capsule continued on its flight to the Kamchatka peninsula and has not yet been recovered. “We are operating without redundancy,” Friedman says delicately. No one on the team has even been under any illusions, notes Druyan. “It’s a big ‘if’ if we will succeed at all. It’s literally shooting for the stars. But we’d rather shoot for the stars and fail than not try at all.”
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