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Thursday, September 23, 1999 Published at 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK


Mars probe feared destroyed

Mars Climber Orbiter: Missing presumed destroyed

Nasa's latest probe to Mars is almost certainly lost.

Mission controllers say the $125m spacecraft, which contains a British-built weather satellite, came too close to the planet when it tried to manoeuvre into orbit on Thursday and was probably destroyed.

Contact was lost with the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) shortly after it fired its main engine to reduce speed. This would have sent the spacecraft into a polar orbit with a temporary loss of radio contact as it flew behind the planet.

[ image: Mars Climate Orbiter: A navigation error was to blame]
Mars Climate Orbiter: A navigation error was to blame
The weather satellite was set to go into orbit around the Red Planet to monitor conditions. It took nine months to travel more than 400 million miles to Mars.

Communication has not been re-established and mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena concede the prospect is highly unlikely.

When the JPL staff examined the navigation data, they discovered an error. It seems the MCO flew within 60 kilometres of the planet, 25km below what was regarded as a safe distance.

One of the project managers, Richard Cook, told a news conference the MCO would probably have started to break up at such a low altitude.

He said: "We believe the spacecraft came in at a lower altitude than we predicted.

[ image: Richard Cook: Efforts will continue to find MCO]
Richard Cook: Efforts will continue to find MCO
"Depending on how low that was, it could be the total loss of the mission."

He said the cause was probably human or software error, not a mechanical problem with the spacecraft.

The orbiter was designed to be the first interplanetary weather satellite, studying the ebb and flow of carbon dioxide frosts and giant dust storms over a whole Martian year.

Mr Cook said efforts will continue to find the MCO.

Nasa's Richard Cook: We hope to hear from the satellite within a few hours
A few years ago another major spacecraft, the Mars Observer, was lost as it attempted to enter Martian orbit.

As part of the mission, the orbiter was carrying a batch of experiments designed by an Oxford University professor.

They included a UK-designed radiometer to probe the temperatures, dust, water vapour and clouds in the thin Martian atmosphere.

Professor Fred Taylor who spent 10 years developing the sensor at Oxford, had hoped it would answer the mystery of the origins of water vapour around Mars.

The orbiter was also due to serve as the communications relay for its sibling spacecraft, Mars Polar Lander, set to touch down near the south pole on 3 December.

Nasa officials said the loss will not hinder the space programme in the long run.

Carl Pilcher, of Nasa's office of Space Science said: "We intend this to be a case of science delayed, not science lost."

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