August 30, 2002

Joint NASA, Cornell Space Probe Missing

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The CONTOUR mission, a space exploration project undertaken by NASA as well as Cornell and Johns Hopkins universities, appears to be damaged.

The probe, designed to gather information about comets, has not been heard from since Aug. 15 when its solid fuel rocket was supposed to eject it from earth’s gravity. CONTOUR had been orbiting the earth for six weeks and was fully functional during that time.

“Just before all of this happened, the spacecraft was in great shape, and we were able to contact it,” said Prof. Joe Veverka, astronomy, and head scientist for the CONTOUR mission.

Since then, mission operators at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) have found at least three objects in CONTOUR’s expected orbit. The objects, thought to be the pieces of the spacecraft, were moving away from the earth at more than 13,000 miles per hour.

“The images don’t show much detail so the hope is that the larger of those objects might be a reasonably intact spacecraft,” said Michael Buckley, spokesperson for the APL.

Some of the objects in the radar imagery could be nonessential paneling or part of the rocket booster, Buckley added.

“Only one of the spacecraft’s four antenna[e] is currently accessible, so it could be that the one antenna is not functioning but the others might,” said Veverka.

“It can be very difficult to say exactly what happened,” Buckley said.

Further observations of the spacecraft are unlikely as it is now approximately 10 million kilometers from earth.

“The best case scenario is that we are able to contact it in December and we proceed as planned. Worst case is that we don’t and then we’ll have to see where to go from there,” said Veverka.

For now, the researchers have scaled back their efforts to contact the probe. They will attempt to make contact once a week until mid-December when the orientation of the spacecraft and earth will allow for the other antennae to become accessible. When that time comes, mission operators will make one last concentrated effort to contact CONTOUR.

“The team hasn’t entirely given up hope, but they’ve made it clear that they don’t hold out much optimism either,” said Buckley

CONTOUR was slated to visit at least two comets over the next four years. It was hoped that the spacecraft’s camera and sensors would provide unprecedented images and information about the exact composition of the comets’ nuclei — their solid cores.

The probe was built at APL over a period of two years at a cost of $159 million. The grant to build the probe was the largest ever received by Cornell.

CONTOUR is the sixth mission in NASA’s Discovery initiative of medium cost space exploration endeavors.

“The Discovery program gives scientists a chance to propose relatively low cost, high focus missions,” said Don Savage, a spokesperson for NASA.

The program selects a mission every two years from a pool of applications. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) and Mars Pathfinder missions were well-publicized successes of the program, and CONTOUR would be the first in the Discovery series not to complete its mission.

NASA officials are already preparing for the second possibility.

“We have put together an investigative team that is headed by NASA’s chief engineer and in six to eight weeks we will hopefully have a report,” said Savage.

The failure of CONTOUR would not be a first for NASA. In 1999, the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere when an engineer neglected to convert to metric units.

It was joined less than three months later by the $165 million Mars Polar Lander that disappeared while searching for frozen water on Mars. It is thought to have fallen into a canyon.

“Often people tend to hear about the failures, but what they don’t know is that there are ten other programs occurring at the same time that turn out to be successful,” said Laura Lautz, Education and Public Outreach Coordinator for CONTOUR, in an interview with the Sun last February.

There is still hope that CONTOUR will one day complete its mission, even if this probe is permanently damaged.

“Fortunately there are possibilities of rebuilding the spacecraft and restarting the project beginning in 2006,” said Veverka.

The spacecraft’s images would have been of 30 times better quality than previous pictures of comet nuclei thus shedding light on what many astronomers consider to be the least understood objects in our solar system.

Archived article by Philip Lane