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Tethered satellite hurls into space, ruining experiment

Link to 1.3M QuickTIme movie February 25, 1996
Web posted at: 9:55 p.m. EST

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas (CNN) -- A tether holding a half-ton satellite to the space shuttle Columbia broke Sunday, hurling the multi-million dollar device into space.

Satellite The wayward satellite, which was drifting into space at a speed of about 100 mph, posed no danger to the shuttle and its seven astronauts. It was not necessary to maneuver the shuttle to avoid the satellite, which is irretrievable. (306K AIFF sound or 306K WAV sound)

The cause of the break, which occurred about 8:30 p.m. EST as the shoestring-thin, 13-mile tether was almost fully extended, was unknown.

The $442-million mission was the second failed attempt to tow a satellite through space. An earlier try in 1992 failed when the tether got caught on a safety bolt in the reel after extending to a length of only about 800 feet.

Boom tether NASA did not immediately know why the tether snapped, but asked the crew to point a camera toward the boom so that it could study the condition of the portion of the tether that remained attached.

Nearly five hours into the satellite deployment, astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman shouted to Mission Control, "The tether has broken at the boom! The tether has broken! It is going away from us!"

Hoffman reported the tether made a "clean" break inside the tower adjacent to the shuttle from which the satellite was launched.

Tether cross-section The satellite deployment was the centerpiece of a project to generate electricity in space. Once extended, the Italian- made satellite was to sweep through Earth's magnetic field at the end of a thin cable, just one-tenth of an inch wide. The goal of the experiment was to develop a system for powering a space station.

At 3:45 p.m. EST, the Columbia crew started unreeling the cable at a cautious speed of less than .02 mph. It was expected to take about five-and-a-half hours to fully extend the multi-layered cable wound in the cargo bay of the space shuttle.

After the tether broke, the crew of the shuttle remained in a holding pattern gathering data for subsequent analysis of the failed project.

The satellite deployment experiment had been postponed Saturday due to computer problems.

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