The launch was part of a joint Russian-US project attempting the first controlled flight of a solar sail.
An unnamed official in Russia’s North Sea Fleet told the Russian news
agency RIA-Novosti the engine failure occurred 83 seconds after the launch from a submerged Russian submarine in the northern Barents Sea.
“After 83 seconds, the engine of the booster rocket stopped working and the spacecraft did not enter orbit,” the official said. He said a search was underway for the solar sail and the Volna booster rocket and an investigation would study what went wrong.
Lidia Avdeyeva, a spokeswoman for the Lavochkin institute involved in the project, told The Associated Press she could not confirm the information but said if the engine had failed the vehicle would have fallen back to Earth.
Past attempts to unfold similar devices in space have also failed.
In 1999, Russia attempted a similar experiment with a sun-reflecting device, but the deployment mechanism jammed and the device burned up in the atmosphere.
In 2001, Russia launched another such experiment, but the device failed to separate from the booster.
The project involved Russia’s Lavochkin research production institute and is financed by an organisation affiliated to the US Planetary Society.
During the first 45 minutes after launch, in two stages the solar sail was to have separated from the booster and then an engine still powering the device.
But space officials lost all signals from the spacecraft.
Scientists hoped streams of solar energy particles would push a giant, reflecting sail through space the way wind propels boats across water.
Solar sails are envisioned as a potential means for achieving interstellar flight in the future, allowing such spacecraft to gradually build up great velocity and cover large distances.
Backers of the mission said that with sunlight as its only fuel, a solar sail craft could potentially open the farthest reaches of the solar system to space travel.
The spacecraft, called “Solar Sail,” weighs about 110 kilograms.
It was planned to go into an orbit more than 800 kilometres above the Earth for four and a half days while it underwent tests.
Then inflatable tubes was then to have stretched the sail material out and held it rigid in eight 15-metre-long structures resembling the blades of a windmill.
Each blade could be turned to reflect sunlight in different directions so that the craft could “tack,” much like a sailboat in the wind.