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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  

Three panels to investigate Mars orbiter loss

Global Surveyor, which recently snapped this image of the Arsia Mons volcano at Mars, may serve as a back-up data relay to Earth during an upcoming martian lander mission due to the loss of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter.  

September 28, 1999
Web posted at: 5:16 p.m. EDT (2116 GMT)

In this story:

Second panel to look for root cause

Mars Global Surveyor keeps on ticking

'A fairly complicated thing'


By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- NASA has formed three panels to look into a navigation error that resulted in the presumed destruction of a $125-million spacecraft and to make sure a similar problem doesn't doom a similarly priced mission set to land on Mars in December.

The panels include a special review board appointed by managers in the director's office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Pasadena, California branch of NASA oversaw the lost Mars Climate Orbiter mission and manages the Mars Polar Lander now en route to the red planet.

"The Laboratory's first priority now must be the successful initiation of planetary operations for Mars Polar Lander, so this review should be conducted with this objective in mind," wrote JPL Deputy Director Larry Dumas in a memo to start up the review board.

That group, with about 10 members, will be headed up by John Casani, who retired from JPL two months ago from the position of chief engineer for the lab.

He formerly was the project manager for the Galileo mission at Jupiter. Many of the group's members are recent JPL retirees.

The review panel will work closely with the team that oversees the Mars Surveyor mission, which was to conduct a coordinated weather study of Mars with the lander and Climate Orbiter, but now will involve a solo effort by the Polar Lander.

Climate Orbiter had been set to relay data from the upcoming lander mission and conduct studies of its own of the martian atmosphere. The spacecraft completed a nearly 10-month journey to Mars before it was lost on Thursday.

A navigation mishap, possibly due to human error, pushed the spacecraft dangerously close to the planet's atmosphere where it presumably burned and broke into pieces, killing the mission on a day when engineers had expected to celebrate the craft's entry into Mars' orbit.

Both Mars Surveyor spacecraft were designed to help scientists understand Mars' water history and the potential for life in the planet's past. There is strong evidence that Mars was once awash with water, but scientists have no clear answers to where the water went and what drove it away.

Second panel to look for root cause

A peer review panel also will delve into the technical details of what happened, looking at all facets of the mission from telecommunications to navigation to the spacecraft. JPL staffers from different disciplines at the NASA facility will comprise that panel.

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The group will look for the root cause of the navigation error and recommend ways to avoid the same problem with future missions, including Polar Lander.

Finally, NASA Headquarters is convening an independent review panel.

NASA managers have said the Polar Lander mission will go on as planned and return answers to the same scientific questions originally planned -- even though the lander will have to relay its data to Earth without help from Climate Orbiter.

Instead, the spacecraft will rely on its radio, installed for such a back-up scenario, and Mars Global Surveyor, another orbiter currently mapping Mars.

Polar Lander is designed to use a robotic arm to dig for water ice in the martian soil and conduct other science experiments.

Mars Global Surveyor keeps on ticking

Global Surveyor, another modestly priced mission, continues to return high-resolution images from Mars as it enters its sixth month of mapping the planet.

Global Surveyor, launched in 1996 to replace a billion-dollar spacecraft also lost before it could start its science mission, has turned out to be a linchpin for NASA's Mars Exploration program.

It could end up relaying data for another upcoming lander mission set for launch in 2001, as well.

The Global Surveyor recently returned a photo of one of the largest volcanoes in our solar system, called Arsia Mons. The volcano is part of a trio of volcanoes in the Tharsis highlands of Mars, with the summit more than 9 km (5.6 miles) higher than the surround plains.

The crater at its summit is 110 km (68 miles) across.

'A fairly complicated thing'

NASA mission planners currently are working out the best way to return data from Polar Lander, relying on a combination of the X-band radio on the lander and a communications relay that runs through the camera on Mars Global Surveyor.

Originally, the camera relay would do double duty, transmitting data for two microprobes that Polar Lander will release on December 3 as it enters the martian atmosphere.

The microprobes will conduct a one-day mission at Mars' south pole, scooping up a tiny bit of frozen crust, baking it to search for water and transmitting results back to Earth.

Now Global Surveyor could transmit that data, its own mapping results and much more.

The question of how to get Polar Lander's data down to Earth is a topic of "ongoing attention," said Mike Ravine, an advanced project manager at Malin Space Science Systems, the company that operates the Global Surveyor camera.

"It all ends up being a matter of data rates," he said. "Is one modem faster than the other? It's not like the bits you get back are better or worse. You just get more or less of them."

Global Surveyor had its own troubles when it arrived at Mars. A stuck latch, discovered earlier, made a solar panel wobble so much that the spacecraft's entry into orbit had to be slowed down over a period of months.

"Everybody wants to figure out how to get the most out of the lander mission given what has happened," Ravine said. Planners must take into account the details of the lander's radio performance, orbital geometry and the sequence of data collection by the lander.

"It's a fairly complicated thing," he said.

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