A $125 million NASA spacecraft that had traveled 416 million miles to Mars vanished Thursday as it was about to go into orbit around the Red Planet. This was the second time in six years that a NASA spaceship was lost just as it reached Mars.
The Mars Climate Orbiter, which was on a mission to study the planet's weather and look for signs of water, apparently flew too close to the Martian atmosphere and broke apart or burned up, the space agency said. NASA ruled out mechanical problems and blamed human or software error.
Back in 1993 the $1 billion Mars Observer probe disappeared in 1993. NASA's goals are to lauch a space probe every 26 months. However, these losses do not help NASA's desire to secure funding from Congress. NASA countered that the Mars Pathfinder was a 1997 success. This was the tiny land rover which crawled around the planet's surface in 1997. [AAER Note: The claim that this mission was successful has been highly debated. Photo analyses show inconsistent lighting and shadows.]
"When you're launching missions at such a such a vast and rapid a rate, there is simply statistically a greater trend that you're going to have a loss," said Carl Pilcher of NASA's Office of Space Exploration.
The Climate Orbiter was last heard from about 2:06 a.m. PDT, five minutes after its main engine had fired to slow down the spacecraft so that it would be captured in the planet's orbit. As the probe flew behind Mars, controllers expected to lose its signal briefly, then regain it at 2:26 a.m., as it came back into view. But controllers quickly learned that the probe's closest approach was about 12 1/2 miles under the lowest survivable altitude.
The Orbiter carried instruments designed to study the atmosphere and the fate of water that was believed to have once pooled in huge oceans on the planet. The information is key to understanding whether life ever existed or can exist there.
In 1993, the Mars Observer vanished as its fuel lines were being pressurized before the craft's descent into orbit. An investigating panel concluded that a fuel line had probably broken during the long journey through space.
The Climate Orbiter was the first of two probes arriving at the Red Planet this year in a $327.5 million exploration program.
The Orbiter's companion, the Mars Polar Lander, was launched separately and is due to arrive Dec. 3. NASA said that mission will not be compromised by the destruction of the Climate Orbiter.
Associated Press, Sept. 23, 1999