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Space(F)light

Photo by Louis Friedman, ThePlanetary Society

THROUGHOUT THE AGES humans have been borne across oceans by the power of wind. Propelled by nothing more substantial than air, schooners and brigantine have ferried men to the farthest reaches of our globe. Now a fantastical descendant of these windblown craft is about to make its maiden voyage, harnessing as its driving force the ephemeral power of light. At the Planetary Society in Pasadena and the Babakin Space Center in Moscow, scientists are developing a sailboat to the stars, a “ship” that will ride the “solar wind” and carry us across galactic seas. If all goes according to plan, this could be the start of a new era in interplanetary, and even interstellar, exploration.

Planetary Society executive director Dr. Louis Friedman likens the Cosmos 1 to the seminal airplanes of Orville and Wilbur Wright. December 17 marks the hundredth anniversary of the brothers’ first engine-powered air voyage near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and hence the official centenary of the Age of Flight. Next year when Cosmos 1 is launched, its inventors hope that they will be inaugurating the next phase in mankind’s aeronautical evolution.

Socially as well as technically, Cosmos 1 is a milestone. Launched from a Soviet submarine and built by Russian space engineers, the craft results from a surreal fusion of American capitalism and post-glasnost pragmatism, an improbable collaboration between formerly competing superpowers, each struggling to extend mankind’s reach into space in an era of heavy funding cuts. The whole setup is literally a MOM and POP affair: Mission Operations Moscow will take primary responsibility for launching and monitoring the payload, with backup provided by Project Operations Pasadena. Both are working from small budgets and must dispense with many of the usual formalities, such as trial runs and test flights.

Welcome to the world of space on a shoestring.

ON A RECENT AFTERNOON while L.A. burned and the sky took on the pallor of the apocalypse, I visited POP HQ at the Planetary Society’s home on a quiet suburban street near the Caltech campus. Having been schooled in the gleaming theater of the starship Enterprise and steeped in the epics of Isaac Asimov, I had to circle the block several times before it sank in that the rambling, wood-shingled house with the flagstone path and the shading trees was really ground zero for a radical experiment in space propulsion. This was not the Kennedy Space Center.

Inside, the décor retains the unmistakable aura of upper-middle-class ’70s suburbia — shag-pile carpet, lace curtains on the kitchen windows, beige and brown throughout. In the hallway a technician is performing surgery on an aging photocopy machine. Half a dozen of the society’s 20 employees are deployed at desks scattered around what is clearly the former living room and dining room. I am reminded not so much of Star Trek as its endearingly homey spoof Galaxy Quest.

Dr. Friedman, a former Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer, greets me in the entrance hall, his shaggy eyebrows at one with the hirsute floor covering. A towering bear of a man, Friedman founded the Society in the mid-1980s with Carl Sagan, he of the infamous “billions and billions.” Sagan was a leading proponent of interplanetary exploration, a cause he championed with relentless enthusiasm until his death in 1996. “We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean,” Sagan once wrote; “we are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” Cosmos 1 is the material embodiment of that dream.

For decades, space agencies have known that any serious trips to the stars will require a revolution in propulsion technology. Current spacecraft are driven by rocket power — some kind of fuel is expelled out the back, forcing the craft forward under the inexorable logic of Newton’s Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The obvious problem with rocketry is that all fuel must be carried on board, which for long journeys becomes impossibly heavy and exorbitantly expensive. In 2001, a NASA report summed up the situation bluntly: “Using current rocket technology,” the engineers wrote, “a trip to the next star would consume the mass-energy equivalent of a planet in order to arrive within a reasonable lifetime.” Some other power source is urgently needed, and remarkably, one possibility is light.

In principle the idea is child’s play. According to quantum mechanics, light is a stream of particles known as photons, so light radiating from our sun must act like a delicate wind. Put a sail in front of this photonic gale and it should be driven forward by a minuscule but continuous pressure. “The whole principle of solar sailing is very low thrust,” Friedman explains. You never get more than a tiny acceleration, but over time in the virtually frictionless environment of space it can build up to enormous speeds. Unlike a rocket-powered ship, a solar sail need not carry a drop of fuel. As the society’s Web site notes, it is “a spacecraft without an engine.”

 

In all, Cosmos 1 will incorporate eight sails, each a vast triangular sheet of aluminized Mylar 47 feet long. With sails arrayed in a circle, their mirrored surfaces turned to the sun, the structure will resemble a gigantic shimmering flower. Each of the sails can be rotated about its tip, and most of the time they’ll be angled obliquely to the direction of the light so that the craft will move forward by tacking to and fro across the photonic breeze.

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.”

For the American team a successful mission would represent a triumph of independent entrepreneurial spirit. Even more so on the Russian side. Babakin scientists are hoping that Cosmos 1 will pave the way for a new industry of cheap space launches. The technology they have developed can carry up to 700 kilograms into low Earth orbit. According to the Babakin Web site, it is estimated that by the end of the decade, 60 percent of all the world’s space launches will be small lightweight satellites. The Russians believe that with converted ICBMs they can slash the price of a small-scale launch to less than a third of the going rate, currently around $25 million.

Launching from a submarine means the Planetary Society has had to deal not only with several Russian space agencies but also the nation’s navy. Friedman says they have been a delight — helpful, efficient and supremely pragmatic. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian state agencies have had to become good little capitalist enterprises, contractors for hire in between their government work. And have they got a deal for you! The Russians have agreed to deliver the sail into space for a fixed contract price — missile, sub, the whole nine yards for just $4 million. “You can’t get much for that in the U.S.,” Friedman tells me. “We could never have afforded to build this ourselves.” Druyan, the New Yorker, knows a bargain when she sees one. “When Lou first called me,” she says, “he offered me an opportunity to be part of space history for basically the price of a nice Manhattan apartment.”

BACK AT THE PLANETARY SOCIETY, I am eager to see the POP command center for myself, and Friedman leads the way to a neat bungalow by the side of the house. The whole setup looks like nothing so much as a junior high science-fair project. Two desktop computers, later to be supplemented by a third, hold sway in a room that boasts little more than a whiteboard, a conference table and a photomontage of the history of flight — from the Wright brothers and Amelia Earhart to Neil Armstrong’s moon walk and the Mars rover. A homemade model of the Cosmos 1 swings overhead like a cheap New Age mobile.

For one brief moment I don’t know whether to laugh or cheer. But really, it’s no contest. At a time when NASA has spent $152 million cleaning up the mess and working out what went wrong in the Columbia disaster, there is something insanely great about this string-and-sealing-wax venture. Held together with spit and a prayer and good old Russian know-how, the world’s first solar sail could not be a more perfect embodiment of the DIY tradition that propelled Orville and Wilbur into the skies on a maiden flight that lasted a mere 12 seconds. Friedman hopes that Cosmos 1’s voyage will be somewhat longer than that — days or weeks if they are lucky — but in the end he’ll be over the moon if they can simply prove the concept. The craft will be fitted with accelerometers, and any motion at all will constitute a mission success.

 

When this ICBM breaks the waves and heads into space with its butterfly-wing payload, one hopes that Congress is paying close attention. At present, NASA is forbidden from entering into these kinds of partnerships. Under the terms of the Iran Non-Proliferation Act, which, Sagdeev explains, was designed to punish Russia for supposedly supplying ballistic missiles to Iran, NASA cannot engage in collaborative projects that would require sending money to any Russian space agency. An exception would be a life-threatening emergency — if, say, there were astronauts stranded at the International Space Station.

It’s an absurd situation, Sagdeev believes. The Russians have know-how but no money; the Americans have money, but judging by NASA’s recent string of failures, they could do with some technological help. It’s not just that salaries are lower in Russia, Sagdeev says, “It’s also the style of working. The Russian space program is a lot more cost efficient.” Sagdeev feels the two nations should be working more closely together. The Europeans have had no such qualms about teaming up with former Soviet agencies, and, according to Sagdeev, the U.S. is rapidly losing its edge in space. The Russians would love to get together with their U.S. colleagues, he says. “You guys need our help.”

For more information on the Solar Sail project, go to solarsail.com or www.planetary.org.


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