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Friday, September 24, 1999 Published at 18:04 GMT 19:04 UK


Scientist fights Mars setback

The first part of Mars Climate Orbiter's journey was successful

Oxford University scientist Professor Fred Taylor has said he is "very, very, disappointed" by the failure of Nasa's latest Mars probe, the Mars Climate Orbiter.

The craft, which vanished as it manoeuvred into orbit around the planet, had on board a weather-monitoring satellite painstakingly built by the Professor of Atmospheric Physics.

[ image: Mars Climate Orbiter: Lost in space]
Mars Climate Orbiter: Lost in space
"It's taking a while to sink in," Prof Taylor told BBC News Online, "but it is very, very disappointing.

"I've spent 10 years working on the project and I was very excited about it."

Prof Taylor had been hoping that the satellite would answer the mystery of the origins of water vapour around Mars.

This in turn could determine the potential for life on the Red Planet, and also provide information about potential climate change on earth.

Error 'incredible'

Prof Taylor had been away from Oxford University when the news of the failure came in, but he was told about it via e-mail.

He said his initial reaction was that the news was "puzzling".

[ image: MCO: 10 years of work]
MCO: 10 years of work
He was bemused by Nasa findings that human error appeared to be to blame.

"There appears to be no evidence of mechanical failure," he said. "But it's incredible that Nasa would have made such an error."

Prof Taylor explained that one of the reasons for his bitter disappointment is that it is the second time it has happened to him.

An earlier spacecraft with his equipment on board, Mars Observer, was lost on the way to the planet in 1993.

"You always know it's a high-risk business," Prof Taylor said. "But I was expecting it to be successful this time."

Third time lucky?

Prof Taylor remains optimistic of eventually conducting his Martian experiments, however.

"It will hopefully still happen," he said. Mars remains enormously important to science at the moment.

The professor said Nasa was making "optimistic noises" about sending up a new orbiter within six months. "It's urgent science," he added.

For now, though, he will get over the disappointment by throwing himself into the new term at Oxford University.

"There's always work to do," he said.

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