Louis D. FriedmanDec 02, 2005

Update: Getting Started

The Planetary Society solar sail team is working to try again to fly the world’s first solar sail spacecraft. With a tested spacecraft design, almost all flight components available, and at least two attractive launch vehicle possibilities, we are well positioned to reach our goal.

We’ve made considerable progress: Our Lavochkin/Space Research Institute team in Russia has identified two promising and affordable launch vehicles candidates for our spacecraft.

The Soyuz rocket with a Fregat upper stage successfully launched the European Space Agency’s Mars Express and Venus Express, among other missions. Soyuz is the reliable workhorse of Russian rockets and, with the Space Shuttle grounded, it is the only vehicle now taking astronauts to the International Space Station. It would carry our solar sail as secondary payload, piggybacking on a commercial launch.

The other launch vehicle possibility is the Kosmos-3M which recently launched several independent payloads from different countries. It, too, is very reliable, and although there were plans to shut down production, that plan has been reversed, and the rocket is now being built for small commercial and scientific launches.

With these new opportunities opening up, our members are backing a reflight, responding strongly by giving us the funds to begin again. We also have a small amount of insurance reimbursement in Russia that can be applied to part of the spacecraft re-build. This, with our members’ donations, allows us to keep our team together and restart the spacecraft development process.

But we will need much more to reach orbit. The total funding required for our project is $4 million, and we will need a major corporate or individual sponsor.

We are considering some minor modifications to the Cosmos 1 spacecraft design, depending on the availability of funds. Our American team has suggested some additional instrumentation, while our colleagues in Russia are proposing additional material to stiffen the inflatable tubes that deploy and support the sails. Whatever we do will be a mix of minimizing changes to what we think is an already capable spacecraft, and making improvements based on lessons learned.

Meanwhile, we are closely watching a potential development in NASA. As part of their new Centennial Challenges program, the space agency is considering a prize to be awarded for the first solar sail flight. Thus far, Centennial Challenges have been limited to Earth-based technology demonstrations, but if Congress authorizes enough money for flight prizes, there is a high likelihood that a solar sail flight demonstration will be among the first such challenges. If so, The Planetary Society is ready to respond. But whether or not NASA offers a prize, we will pursue our goal to demonstrate controlled solar sail flight.

All of this depends on finding visionaries willing and able to sponsor our solar sail project. If you are one, please contact me at [email protected].

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