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A date has been set for the launch of the first ever solar sail-powered spacecraft.
Cosmos 1, which has been funded by The Planetary Society, is scheduled to launch aboard a Russian rocket from a submarine in the Barents Sea on June 21, testing a technology that many experts believe could one day power missions into deep space.
When the spacecraft reaches an orbiting altitude of 800 kilometers (500 miles), it will deploy eight triangular 15-meter (50-foot) sails that will be slowly propelled by the pressure of sunlight particles bouncing off them.
Over 24 hours, Cosmos 1 will reach a speed of just 100 miles an hour. But while fuel-powered spacecraft accelerate quickly before cruising at a constant speed, a solar sail would continue to gather momentum, eventually reaching a speed far in excess of anything achieved by conventional spacecraft.
After three years a solar sail would be traveling at more than 100,000 miles an hour -- a speed that would enable it to reach Pluto, the solar system's most outlying planet, in just five years.
Solar-sail power would also reduce the need for a spacecraft to carry heavy fuel reserves, increasing its range of mobility and enabling it to hover at a fixed point in space for longer periods of time.
NASA and other space agencies are developing their own versions of solar sail propulsion. Last month NASA tested a solar sail at its vacuum chamber in Ohio, while Japan has already deployed two solar sails in space.
"The data from this historic flight is critical because solar sailing is a technology that holds much promise for humanity's future in space," said Cosmos 1 project director Louis Friedman, who established The Planetary Society with late American astronomer Carl Sagan.
"If successful, this technology may transform the way we explore space."
Once deployed, The Planetary Society said the solar sail would be clearly visible from earth as it orbited the planet.
The Planetary Society and Cosmos Studios are working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to test microwave propulsion on their planned Cosmos 1 spacecraft.
A test will also be conducted in which microwave energy will be beamed from JPL to Cosmos 1 to study this method of propulsion. Rather than using beamed energy to power a propulsion system, Cosmos 1 will actually use the microwaves hitting the sail to push the craft forward.
microwave energy will be transmitted spaceward via a large radio dish in Goldstone, California - a powerful antenna that's part of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Deep Space Network.