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Thursday, 15 August, 2002, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
Nasa space probe missing
Nasa image of missing Contour probe
Nasa's probe was due to leave Earth orbit
Image: Nasa

One of Nasa's space probes appears to be missing.

The science probe was scheduled to depart Earth orbit on Thursday for a 2003 encounter with a comet.

The Comet Nucleus Tour, or Contour, spacecraft was to have fired its manoeuvering engine at 2349 GMT on Wednesday for 50 seconds and contact its ground control team at the Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland, 45 minutes later.

"So far, we've heard nothing," said Mike Buckley, a spokesman for the school's Applied Research Laboratory which built the $159 million probe and manages the mission for Nasa.

The team is trying to contact the probe through Nasa's Deep Space Network along the path Contour would have taken if the engine firing had worked.

Plans to look for the spacecraft in Earth orbit are under consideration.

The worst-case scenario is to look for debris, said Mr Buckley.

Time running out

If the probe is found still circling Earth, managers will have one more chance to save the mission.

Coutour is scheduled for a close encounter with Comet Encke in November 2003.

Its last chance to manoeuvre into a solar orbit that will pass by the comet will come on Friday, said mission director Robert Farquhar.

A second comet encounter is planned for 2006.

Contour was launched on 3 July from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and has been circling Earth since then, awaiting the exact moment to fire its engine and manoeuvre into position for the comet encounters.

Sister probes

Nasa has another comet mission under way called Stardust, which is to pluck samples of comet gas and dust and return them to Earth in 2006.

The agency also plans to launch a probe in 2004 to impact a comet and study its inner structure.

Scientists believe comets are made from the leftover remains of solid matter that formed the solar system.

They are among the most abundant and least understood celestial bodies.

The aim of the Contour mission was to get closer to a comet's nucleus than has ever been achieved before.

See also:

09 Aug 02 | Science/Nature
27 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
25 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
24 Oct 97 | Science/Nature
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