MOSCOW – Forget e-mail. How about space mail?
In an experiment combining elements of a package delivery service, the sport of kite surfing and a REALLY big fishing reel, Russian and European engineers on Tuesday sought to pioneer a technology that could be used in the future to retrieve cargo from space.
The experiment involving a 19-mile, super-strength tether hit a glitch, however, when the line failed to unwind fully, but Russian Mission Control said it hopes to salvage the test by recalculating the landing capsule's orbit.
"Even a fishing line could get stuck sometimes," Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin told The Associated Press.
The second Young Engineers Satellite, whose preparation involved nearly 500 university students from Europe, Japan, North America and Australia, was launched into orbit Sept. 14 on a Russian-built Foton-M3 spacecraft, along with other European Space Agency experiments.
The goal of the YES2 experiment was to deliver Fotino — a 12-pound reddish spherical capsule the size of a beach ball — to Earth with the help of a long tether made of a substance the European Space Agency described as the world's strongest fiber.
In the experiment, the Fotino, held in a metal brace by straps, was to be shot out from the Foton-M3 spacecraft with springs as the tether gradually unwound, swinging the capsule forward into a lower orbit about 18 miles below.
About 2 1/2 hours later, after gravity takes firm hold and the entire unit swings in a vertical position below the spacecraft, the Fotino is then released from its straps and glides through the atmosphere for about 20 minutes before a parachute deploys and the sphere bumps to a landing in the steppes of the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.
The capsule has a thermal shield to protect it from the searing heat of re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere, while the tether and the holding clamps burn up.
The experiment went awry when only five miles of the tether were unwound from the spacecraft at about 190 miles above the Earth before the capsule was released, Lyndin said.
The reason for the problem wasn't immediately clear, Lyndin said.
"It could be that the tether got stuck," he added.
The Fotino is equipped with a radio beacon to allow experts to track it as it glides down through the atmosphere, and Mission Control will try to calculate its current orbit to determine when and where it will land, Lyndin said.
The Russian Space Agency sought to play down the problem, saying the experiment provided a "valuable information about the tether's dynamics in space flight."
"The results of the experiment could be considered partly successful," it said.
Roger Walker, the project manager for ESA's Education Office, also played down the glitch, saying on the agency's Web site that it was a "largely successful demonstration" and that the agency was proud of the students' work, even though full deployment was not reached.
Lyndin said there had been other experiments involving tethers deployed in space, but they were not that long and did not carry parcels.
The tether deployed Tuesday is .0196 inches thick and is made of Dyneema, which the ESA said is used by kite surfers.