Lost in Space

Lost in Space

S. Guynup

The Mars Climate Orbiter cost $125 million to make and took nine months to reach the Red Planet. But last September the space mission fizzled–and dashed scientists’ hopes of learning more about weather on Mars. On September 23rd, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, lost contact with Orbiter. The craft vanished after settling into orbit around Mars.

Orbiter was mistakenly steered to within 60 km (37 mi) of the planet’s surface because one engineering team used metric units while another used English units (inches, feet, and pounds) for calculations!!! At such low altitude, atmospheric friction (force that slows the movement of one object against another) burned it up.

Scientists had designed Orbiter to study weather cycles and atmosphere for one Martian year (687 days), and send back daily weather reports. A complex radiometer (device that detects and measures radiation) would have scanned the Martian atmosphere to measure temperature, dust, water vapor, and clouds.

On that fateful September night, the spacecraft fired its main engine, thrusting the 629-kilogram (1,387-pound) craft into orbit around Mars. Orbiter then passed behind the planet and disappeared. Engineers searched Martian skies with the Deep Space Tracking System (radio telescopes used to track spacecraft)–but it was gone.

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