Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Solar Sail Vehicle to Attempt First Controlled Space Flight

A solar sail vehicle designed to be propelled by the pressure of sunlight was to be launched into space from a Russian submarine Tuesday as part of a joint Russian-U.S project attempting the first controlled flight of a solar sail, Federal Space Agency officials said.

A Volna booster rocket was to launch the unmanned spacecraft from a submerged submarine in the Barents Sea at 11:46 p.m., said Konstantin Kreidenko, an agency spokesman. The aim is for solar energy to push a giant, reflecting sail through space the way wind propels sailboats across water.

The spacecraft, called "Solar Sail," weighs about 80 kilograms and is designed to go into an orbit more than 800 kilometers high, Kreidenko said.

It should take the spacecraft 1 hour and 40 minutes to make a full orbit around the Earth. Solar sails are envisioned as a potential means for achieving interstellar flight in the future, allowing such spacecraft to gradually build up great velocity and cover large distances.

Kreidenko said the Solar Sail was expected to separate from the booster at 12:29 a.m. Wednesday. Once the Solar Sail reaches orbit, inflatable tubes will stretch the sail material out and hold it rigid in eight 15.1-meter-long structures resembling the blades of a windmill.

Each blade can be turned to reflect sunlight so that the craft can "tack" much like a sailboat in the wind.

In 1999, Russia attempted a similar experiment with a sun-reflecting device, but the deployment mechanism jammed and the device burned up in the atmosphere. In 2001, Russia launched another such experiment, but the device failed to separate from the booster.

The $4 million project involves the Lavochkin Research Association and is financed by the U.S. Planetary Society.