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Solar sail spacecraft crashes after launch

The solar sail failed to detach from the Russian missile it was riding on, mission managers said.  

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The prototype of a spacecraft built to coast on solar winds crashed shortly after its launch, managers of the private $4 million mission said.

The Planetary Society, an international group of space enthusiasts sponsoring the flight, said the Cosmos 1 Solar Sail successfully launched Friday from a submarine in the Barents Sea.

But a statement from the group said the final command to separate the craft from the Russian missile it was riding on was not executed, and both fell to the ground in Kamchatka, a peninsula in northeastern Russia. Technicians are investigating the cause of the problem.

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

The Planetary Society planned an orbital flight of the solar sail later this year. Friday's flight was meant to be sub-orbital.

The recent failed mission was not the first setback for the society's solar sail program. The prototype also suffered serious damage when 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.

In the future, a windmill-shaped version of the solar sail will use the solar winds -- speeding, highly energized particles -- to propel itself through space, the society said.

• The Planetary Society

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