Cosmos 1, the first solar sail-powered spacecraft, appeared
to be "alive" and sending signals to tracking stations but
could be in a lower orbit than planned, said mission backers at
the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California.

"We have no evidence that anything is wrong with the spacecraft at all," said Bruce Betts, the Planetary Society's
director of projects, late on Tuesday. 

But there were conflicting reports. Russia's Itar-Tass and
Interfax news agencies quoted an unnamed Russian space agency source as saying that the craft had crashed near a remote island in the Barents Sea close to where it had been launched. 

A spokesman for Russia's Northern Fleet, Igor Dygalo said a satellite monitoring the launch "didn't establish contact,
which signifies its loss".

"Due to the spontaneous failure of the motor of the first part of the Volna missile carrier at the 83rd second of the launch, the unique device 'solar sail' did not reach its orbit"

Roskosmos,
Russia's space agency

Russia's Roskosmos space agency said: "Due to the spontaneous failure of the motor of the first part of the Volna missile carrier at the 83rd second of the launch, the unique device 'solar sail' did not reach its orbit."

Members of the Planetary Society, the world's largest private space advocacy group, had hoped the mission would show that a group of space enthusiasts could kick-start a race to the stars on a shoestring budget of $4 million.

Their brainchild, Cosmos 1 blasted off in a converted intercontinental ballistic missile from a Russian submarine on Tuesday. But the disc-shaped craft lost contact with its controller almost immediately. For several hours, Cosmos 1 was believed lost.

Signals

But weak signals received by tracking stations in the Pacific Ocean, Russia and the Czech Republic seemed to show
that Cosmos 1 had made it into orbit.

Mission controllers discovered after reviewing data recorded by the stations that the craft had signalled its passage during what had been believed to be several hours of radio silence, said Planetary Society co-founder Bruce Murray. 

The privately funded Cosmos 1
project cost $4 million

"The good news is we have reason to believe it's alive and
in orbit," said Murray, a former director of the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory. "The bad news is we don't know where it is." 

The signal appeared weak probably because the orbiter had
veered off course during its final rocket burn, and ground
antennae were now trained on the wrong part of the sky, Murray said. 

The group planned to enlist the help of the US Strategic
Command, whose job is to monitor the skies for signs of
incoming missiles and other threats.

Mission backers still face the prospect that Cosmos 1 is in
a deteriorating orbit and may eventually fall back to Earth, or
the chance that the orbit is so irregular that the solar sails
cannot deploy properly. 

Hopes

Members of the Planetary Society, the world's largest private space advocacy group, hope the 100-kg spacecraft, intended to deploy a 30-metre petal-shaped solar sail to power its planned orbit around Earth, will demonstrate that sunlight could fuel interplanetary space travel. 

"The good news is we have reason to believe it's alive and in orbit. The bad news is we don't know where it is"

Bruce Murray, co-founder, Planetary Society

They believe that photons - light particles emanating from the Sun - would impel the craft forward at an ever-increasing speed. 

The project started as a dream by Planetary Society founders. the Carl Sagan, the late science fiction writer, Murray and Louis Friedman, a former Nasa engineer who proposed sending a solar-sail craft to rendezvous with Halley's Comet in the 1970s. 

Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, provided most of the funding for
the mission through her entertainment company, Cosmos Studios.