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Tuesday, May 11, 1999 Published at 14:14 GMT 15:14 UK


US rocket recovery dampened by rain

Another partial success: This Delta 3 rocket put its satellite in the wrong orbit

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The US Air Force, still shocked after the failure of three Titan 4 rockets in a row, has suffered another space setback - rain.

It has announced the rather embarrassing fact that its next space mission will be delayed because a $40m navigation satellite got wet in a thunderstorm. It was perched on its Delta 2 rocket.

[ image: Taking off is not the problem]
Taking off is not the problem
The satellite had been scheduled for launch on Saturday but will now be delayed until 23 May at the earliest, while technicians check the satellite for damage.

"The extent of the water damage to the spacecraft is unknown at this time," the Air Force said in a statement. "It's too soon to know if the moisture damaged the satellite."

Rainwater leaked into the protective canopy at the top of the rocket on Saturday afternoon, while the launch pad was evacuated because of the danger from lightning strikes. When workers returned, they discovered moisture on the spacecraft.

A bad year

The Air Force said it had convened a review board to examine this latest space mishap.

With the failures of three consecutive Titan 4 rockets, the Air Force has not had a successful launch from Cape Canaveral in over a year.

However, the fault which wrecked the most expensive failure, a $1.2bn military space mission on 30 April, may have bee identified. Corrupted computer software was to blame according to Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine.

"The Centaur upper stage was launched carrying an inaccurate software load from Lockheed Martin that went undetected in the company's software verification process," the magazine reports.

The mistake caused the booster to fire its engines at the wrong times and release its costly cargo three hours early into an orbit thousands of miles too low.

Shuttle shaken

The bad weather in Florida at the weekend also had Nasa checking the space shuttle Discovery and its fuel tank for possible hail damage.

The shuttle is being prepared on the launch pad for a 20 May mission to deliver supplies and equipment to the International Space Station.

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