Louis D. FriedmanSep 30, 2005

The End of Cosmos 1, the Beginning of the Next Chapter

Cosmos 1 was—and is—a great effort, and one we are proud The Planetary Society tried to do. Our independent grassroots organization built and launched a spacecraft whose technology promises to one day open up interstellar travel. We shared the adventure of space exploration and captured the hearts of millions worldwide. To get as far as we did was—by itself—a great accomplishment, and The Planetary Society board, staff, and technical team, together with our partners at Cosmos Studios, are dedicated to trying again.

With our members’ support, we are raising funds to build and fly another solar sail, and we are seeking new sponsors. We are evaluating technical options, and we are committed to finding a launch vehicle that won’t fail us next time. Our Russian colleagues at the Lavochkin Association, who built Cosmos 1, and the Institute for Space Research (IKI), who were in charge of the electronics, are doing their best to help us, while taking into account the hardware, software, and intellectual investment we have already made.

We retain high confidence in our technical team because, as far as we know, our spacecraft would have worked. Nevertheless, we are taking a few months to do a “lessons learned” evaluation and put together a plan for our new attempt to fly the world’s first solar sail spacecraft.

Report on the Volna Failure and the Loss of Cosmos 1

We now have new information on what most likely happened to Cosmos 1. Although we do not know for certain, it looks like the spacecraft never separated from the rocket or made it to orbit.

The Volna rocket’s first-stage shut down prematurely when its core engine turbo pump assembly malfunctioned. Telemetry data show that the assembly vibrated abnormally at a frequency consistent with its rotor failing. Earlier Volnas, although extremely reliable, had experienced similar problems. A design upgrade had been made on some Volnas to correct the problem.

Unfortunately, our rocket was not among those that were upgraded.

The final report from the Makeev Rocket Design Bureau, the Volna’s manufacturer, describes telemetry covering just less than 6 minutes of flight over the Barents Sea. The main engine of the first stage stopped at 83 seconds, but steering engines (used for roll-pitch-yaw control) continued firing for an additional 50 seconds. At that point, the rocket had an altitude of 75 kilometers (45 miles). With its motors shut down, the rocket continued in parabolic free-flight, and about 5 minutes into the flight and at an altitude near 30 kilometers (18 miles), the data show deceleration from the atmosphere until, about 1 minute later, the rocket plunged into the sea.

The Makeev team concluded that the first-stage engine failure was random and “that it cannot be systematized in terms of error-free running periods during the Volna service life.” That is, they say that no prediction can be made about when the turbo pump problem will occur on future Volna flights. Nonetheless, the report continues, “the first stage engine failures resulted from the design features of the engines that were manufactured without regard for the Design Documentation upgrade intended to improve engine reliability.”

Within a few hours after launch, it appeared that portable tracking stations in the Kamchatka Peninsula and Majuro in the Marshall Islands, as well as the Panska Ves ground station in the Czech Republic, had received signals that correlated with the scheduled times of transmission from the spacecraft. How could this be? It might have been that the first stage of the rocket had separated and it fell alone into the sea, while the rest of the rocket stages worked and carried Cosmos 1 into a very low Earth orbit. Makeev could not tell us otherwise at the time.

After closely examining the signals in the weeks that followed, we eliminated the Panska Ves signal (it turned out to be of the wrong frequency) and the Majuro signal (which detailed analysis showed was probably radio-frequency interference). The Kamchatka data, however, remained strongly suggestive of a spacecraft signal. It was only after the IKI team failed to reproduce the signal’s characteristics on the ground, and an American group we put together showed that the data could not match reasonable Doppler levels, that we lost hope in the possibility that the spacecraft ever reached orbit.

Leaving no stone unturned, the IKI team continued to listen from a tracking station in Tarusa, Russia, and we continued to analyze putative signals until we could finally conclude that it was unlikely that any signal came from the spacecraft.

We now have the final Makeev report in hand, plus additional analyses from our Russian colleagues at IKI and American colleagues of The Planetary Society. We are comfortable with the conclusion that Cosmos 1 never made it to orbit because the launch vehicle failed. But we are not comfortable with the reason it happened: the Volna selected for our payload had not been upgraded to correct a known failure mode. We will not fly on a Volna again. We’ve learned that lesson—and it was certainly a hard one. We are now ready to find a new launch vehicle, establish better launch vehicle interfaces, and try again to fly the first solar sail spacecraft.

The Time is Now.

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