Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Swords into plowshares?

(image credit: Michael Carroll, The Planetary Society)

As I type this, a Russian nuclear submarine is probably making it's way out of an Arctic Circle port and submerging beneath the frigid Barents Sea where, in about 4 hours, it will launch an SS-N-18 SLBM over the north pole. 20 years ago this may have indicated the start of World War III, as a ballistic missile on that trajectory would have probably been armed with a nuclear warhead targeted at the US. That's not the case today.

Today the missile has been converted into a Volna rocket and instead of carrying a weapon that would plunge back to Earth (and possibly start a thermonuclear war), its peaceful payload is the first ever solar sail spacecraft on its way into polar orbit. The project, dubbed Cosmos 1, is privately funded by "the largest nonprofit, nongovernmental space advocacy group on Earth," otherwise known as the Pasadena, California-based Planetary Society*. If all goes well, the mission will demonstrate the first controlled use of solar sails to power a spacecraft. What's the big deal? Well, the idea is to use microthin sails to catch a ride on sunlight, similar to how a sailboat uses the wind to travel the ocean. Something that's never been done before, and something that holds all sorts of possibilities for future space flight, including long distance travel (maybe interplanetary?).

Pardon me while I geekout for a moment here.... The whole thing is just so cool! Space travel without fuel - just using the sun's rays!

The sails won't be deployed right away (I believe not until Sunday), but once deployed the craft should be quite visible even with the naked eye (certain benefits to using huge, reflective sails....). If you're interested, the Planetary Society is asking for amateur help tracking and observing the spacecraft. And you can follow all the developments on their blog, of course.

Here's wishing good luck to everyone at the Project Operations and Mission Operations Centers in California and Russia, and to the crew of the sub. May all go well with you today, and may your work benefit all mankind.

*I've been a member of the Planetary Society since I was a teenager, my name is actually onboard the Cosmos 1 spacecraft (along with all 75,000+ society members whose contributions made the mission possible).

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