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NPR's All Things Considered
Broadcast 23/09/1999, Story 3

A nasa space probes that was supposed to go into orbit around mars this morning was apparently destroyed as a result of a navigational error scientists believe the mars climate orbiter pass too close to mars and get into the planet's atmosphere

Flight controllers are still searching for the grass but the assume that's been lost the accident is an embarrassment for nasa and a setback for its ambitious program to explore mars n. p. r.'s richard harris has the story nasa launched the marshall plan the orbiter last december because i wanted to put a scientific weather satellite around the red planet

Flight controllers at the jet propulsion laboratory in pasadena california gathered around their consoles early this morning to watch is the craft arrived at mars and fired its engine to slow down richard cook was part of the team

During the time leading up to that burned uh of the of the nation's space craft was very healthy i. n. s. plans at two a. m. now the main engine came on uh it started the fire to put this into orbit around mars

As expected the mars climate orbiter disappeared around the backside of mars its engines still blazing away engineers waited anxiously as time ticks by

It to twenty five a. m. we were supposed come out from behind the planet i expected to regain communication with the spacecraft at that point

Instead they didn't hear anything at a news conference today quote explained that engineers immediately started trouble shooting be broadened their search for the fourteen hundred pound probe inserted we checking their calculations

And in doing that uh we determine that in fact may be significant navigation gear had occurred uh and that the spacecraft we believe was coming he had come in and approached mars uh what the point of closest approach to about sixty kilometers

That's less than forty miles the craft was supposed to clear the planet by at least ninety miles and that that lower altitude cook says that would've get into the thin martian atmosphere with disastrous consequences

We certainly don't know what specifically happened to the spacecraft but the uh what we've done analysis looking at the formal environment and that the that the force environment caused by the atmosphere of mars at those altitudes and when you get below a certain level you have concerns about overheating spacecraft or potentially a breaking pieces of the law

Engineers continued searching for signals from the craft throughout the day but chances are the probe is either a trash heap on the martian surface or essentially space junk in orbit nasa has had so much experience and so much success in navigating space probes as could put adroitly this was not unexpected outcome carl culture from nasa headquarters says nasa will quickly investigate the cause of this year and he tried to put the setback in its best light

We have a very robust program of exploration of mars that involves launching a mission per year for at least a decade

It began with mars pathfinder and mars global surveyor in nineteen ninety six he continues with mark kleiman orbiter and mars' polar render and it's going to continue after that with additional missions launched in two thousand one two thousand three and two thousand five

Now the loss of any of those missions is very serious about it

Not devastating to the program as a whole the law spacecraft was supposed to serve as a relay station to being data back from another probe which is scheduled to land on the red planet december third but culture says fortunately the lander has other means of being in all its be a factor

Morris climate orbiter is an inexpensive mission as space missions go the cost of the craft is about a hundred and twenty five million dollars compared for example with four billion dollars spent on the cassini probe now heading toward saturn

John blonston director of george washington university space policy institute notes that it's part of nasa's recent strategy to pursue cheaper and faster exploration missions

Clearly we've we've come to expect perfection from nasa that no man says he human institution and particularly when they're doing these these quicker faster better cheaper missions and in accepting higher risk one while the rest will come back and bite you the biggest blow maybe to nasa's reputation after all when nasa the space craft with plutonium generators within a few hundred miles of the earth's officials assure the public that the risk of collision was minuscule

Nasa officials know today that those missions had a much bigger safety margins and this flight and they had there are no other fly bys like that are currently in the works

Richard harris n. p. r. news washington

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