The Cosmos 1 vehicle, a joint U.S.-Russian project, was intended to show that a so-called solar sail can make a controlled flight. Solar sails, designed to be propelled by pressure from sunlight, are seen as a potential means for achieving interstellar flight, allowing such spacecraft to gradually build up great velocity and cover large distances.
But the Volna booster rocket failed 83 seconds after its launch from a Russian nuclear submarine in the northern Barents Sea just before midnight Tuesday in Moscow, the Russian space agency said.
Its spokesman, Vyacheslav Davidenko, said that "the booster's failure means that the solar sail vehicle was lost." The Russian navy began a search for debris from the booster and the vehicle, he said.
U.S. scientists had said earlier that they possibly had detected signals from Cosmos 1 but cautioned that it could take hours or days to figure out exactly where the $4 million spacecraft was.
The signals were picked up late Tuesday after an all-day search for the spacecraft, which had suddenly stopped communicating after its launch, they said.
"It's good news because we are in orbit — very likely in orbit," Bruce Murray, a co-founder of The Planetary Society, which organized the mission, said before the Russian space agency's announcement.