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Solar sail demo fixed, ready to fly

Artist's depiction of the solar sail in orbit
Artist's depiction of the solar sail in orbit  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Amateur space enthusiasts plan to send a solar sail prototype into suborbital flight this summer, following successful repairs to the experimental spacecraft after a test mishap.

The Planetary Society, the largest private group of space exploration supporters in the world, said the windmill-shaped vessel will use solar power to propel itself through space.

The solar sail should launch aboard a modified Russian intercontinental ballistic missile from a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea. After the suborbital trial, an orbital flight will take place later this year, the Planetary Society said.

The craft was expected to fly earlier this year but suffered serious damage as Russian technicians conducted pre-flight tests in April. The re-entry shield inflated inside the closed capsule and pyrotechnic devices meant to separate sections of the craft accidentally fired. The snafu snapped cables and bent portions of the sail platform.

The society announced last week that its Russian associates had successfully fixed the contraption.

"Fortunately, they had spare parts for everything that was damaged in the accident. They have now completed tests of all the components, as well as the whole spacecraft," Planetary Society President Louis Friedman said in a statement.

NASA engineers have worked for years on solar sail technology, which they theorize could make interstellar travel possible. Streams of protons from the sun would bounce off the super-reflective materials of thin, lightweight, expansive sails, giving them enough push to travel great distances.

Such solar sail flights could take place within the century, speculated Friedman, a former NASA scientist. The $4 million prototype mission, called Cosmos 1, will attempt only to show that the technology can work.

The spacecraft is ready to go, but must wait for the Russian navy to assign a time slot for the submarine launch. Friedman said it could occur as early as mid-July.

• The Planetary Society

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