Mars 96 Crashes to Earth Near South America

The Russian space program suffered a major setback when the Mars 96 spacecraft crashed to Earth just a few hours after launch on November 16, possibly landing in South America.
[Image of Mars 96 launch]     The Proton booster carrying the six-ton spacecraft launched from Baikonur as scheduled at 3:49pm EST (2049 UT) on the 16th. The first three stages of the booster performed as planned, placing Mars 96 and its Block D booster stage into an elliptical low Earth orbit.
     However, due to a fault in either the booster or the spacecraft, the booster stage did not fire to place the spacecraft into a highly elliptical orbit, from which a small thruster firing from the spacecraft itself would have placed it on a trajectory to Mars.
     Instead, the spacecraft separated from the booster, reentering the Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean about four hours after launch. The latest reports from the U. S. Space Command place the impact site in a 80-by-320 km (50 by 200 mi) strip which includes portions of northern Chile and southwestern Bolivia.
     According to CNN reports, the Bolivian and Chilean governments have been notified of the predicted impact site, and teams are searching for debris from the spacecraft in those areas.
     Included in the payload of Mars 96 were four small radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), which use the decay of small amounts of plutonium to generate electricity for the four landers the spacecraft carried. The total mass of plutonium onboard Mars 96 was estimated to be 200 grams (7 oz.).
     The RTGs are designed to survive a high-speed impact without rupturing, so no radioactive contamination is expected. No evidence of radiation had been reported in the landing area.
     The misidentification of the booster stage in orbit as Mars 96 caused a mild panic in Australia the day after the launch, when initial predictions by the U. S. placed the likely impact site in the country. Members of the armed forces in the country were briefly mobilized, but the fears of an impact subsided as the predicted impact site moved farther east into the south Pacific.
[Illustration of Mars 96 spacecraft]     It's now believed that the impact on the 17th was of just the booster stage, the main spacecraft having impacted the previous day. The impact site was believed to be about 1000 km (620 mi) from the Chilean coast in the south Pacific.
     The loss of Mars 96 is a major setback to the Russian space program, and particularly its space science efforts, which had been struggling in recent years. There are no immediate plans for a replacement missions.
     The Mars 96 spacecraft carried experiments from over twenty countries, including two experiments by the United States. The spacecraft included a main section that would go into orbit around Mars, two stations that would soft-land on the Martian surface, and two penetrators that would bury themselves up to several meters into the Martian soil.
     The loss of Mars 96 will not have a direct impact on either the Mars Global Surveyor mission, launched in early November, or the Mars Pathfinder mission, scheduled for an early December launch. Mars Global Surveyor does carry a radio relay link that would have been used to relay data from the Mars 96 landers to Earth.

Stuck Hatch Stymies Shuttle Spacewalkers

It's not exactly the "Space Jam" they had in mind for the shuttle crew.
[Image of stuck hatch]     Two astronauts scheduled to perform a pair of spacewalks to test space station construction techniques will have to remain inside the shuttle Columbia when NASA canceled the two spacewalks due to a jammed hatch in the shuttle airlock.
     Astronauts Tamara Jernigan and Tom Jones were unable to open the shuttle airlock before beginning the spacewalk scheduled for Thanksgiving night, November 28. A handle on the outer airlock door would turn only partway before jamming, and no amount of force the astronauts could provide could force the hatch open.
     After studying the problem for two days, shuttle managers decided the problem could not be fixed from orbit and canceled the spacewalks. Video from the shuttle pointed to misaligned latches as a possible cause for the jamming, a problem not easily fixed from orbit.
     Jernigan and Jones would have used the spacewalks to test a number of tools, from wrenches to power tools, that will be used during the assembly of the International Space Station. The first element of the station is scheduled for launch on 1997 November 27.
     Other than the problem of the stuck hatch, shuttle mission STS-80 has been going well. Launched on November 19, the shuttle released an astronomy satellite, ORFEUS-SPAS 2, hours after launch. The satellite is being use for ultraviolet astronomy and will be recovered near the end of the mission.
[Image of shuttle and WSF]     A second satellite, the Wake Shield Facility (WSF), was deployed Friday evening, November 22. Shuttle astronauts got a scare when the saucer-shaped spacecraft passed within 3 meters (10 feet) of the orbiter's cabin, but no collision took place.
     The WSF was retrieved on Monday night, November 25. Unlike previous flights of the spacecraft, it had little trouble. The WSF is designed to test the growth of films if very pure semiconductors in a ultravacuum.
     The crew spent the Thanksgiving holiday in orbit, eating a Thanksgiving dinner in the early morning hours Friday after the first spacewalk attempt was shelved. The five-person crew, which includes veteran astronaut Story Musgrave on his sixth and final shuttle mission, ate "stabilized" turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin-colored cake.
     The remainder of the mission will be spent picking up the ORFEUS-SPAS 2 satellite and wrapping up a number of experiments. The shuttle is due to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on December 5.

Mars Pathfinder Launch Delayed to Tuesday

The launch of Mars Pathfinder, the second American mission this year to the Red Planet, was delayed by one day due to poor weather conditions.
[Illus. of Mars Pathfinder]     The Delta II carrying the one-ton spacecraft is now scheduled for a launch at 2:03am EST (0703 UT) December 3. The launch window runs though the month of December, with one launch opportunity each day.
     High winds and thick clouds made a launch as previously scheduled on December 2 unlikely, and NASA officials postponed the launch Sunday morning, December 1..
     Meteorologists predicted a 95 percent chance that poor weather would prevent a launch on Monday. By contrast, they predict a 90 percent chance of good weather on Tuesday.
     Mars Pathfinder will be launched on a fast trajectory to the Red Planet, overtaking Mars Global Surveyor, which was launched November 7 and will arrive at Mars in September. Mars Pathfinder will arrive at Mars on July 4, 1997.
     Mars Pathfinder will land on the surface using a cluster of airbags to cushion its landing. The spacecraft carries a number of experiments to study the Martian surface.
     The spacecraft also carries Sojourner, a 10-kg (22-lb) microrover developed by JPL. The rover will spend a week roaming around the surface, navigating largely under its own control. It carries a camera and other instruments to sample the Martian environment.

Clementine Team Confirms Lunar Ice Discovery

A team of scientists from the Clementine lunar mission have confirmed the discovery of what they believe to be deposits of water ice in the permanent shadows of craters at the Moon's south pole.
[Image of Moon's south pole]     In an article in the November 29 issue of Science, a team led by Stewart Nozette of the Air Force Phillips Laboratory discussed the results of a bistatic radar experiment conducted while the Clementine spacecraft was in orbit around the Moon in 1994. in the experiment, radar waves sent by Clementine bounced off the Moon wand were recovered by 70-meter antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network.
     The Clementine team found an enhancement in the signals in permanently shadowed created in the Moon's south pole regions but nowhere else on the surface. The enhancement can be best explained by a body of water ice hidden in the crater.
     The paper confirms rumors floating in the space community over the last two and a half years about the possible discovery of ice on the Moon. Such a discovery is seen as a big boost for efforts to return to the Moon, since the ice there could be used to provide water and oxygen for a manned settlement there.
     The discovery of ice on the Moon "suddenly changes the whole calculus of going to the Moon," said Eugene Shoemaker, one of the co-authors of the paper.
     The source of the ice has been hypothesized to be remnants of comets which crashed into the lunar surface over billions of years.

Bent Solar Panel Will Not Impact Surveyor Mission

A solar panel bent slightly out of alignment on the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft should not have any effect on the mission to study the Red Planet for orbit, NASA announced November 27.
[Image of MGS]     One of the two 3.5-meter (11-foot) solar panels is bent 20.5 degrees from the full extended position. The panel has been stuck in that position since hours after launch, when the panels were first extended.
     "After extensive investigation... we believe the tilted array poses no extreme threat to the mission," said Glenn Cunningham, Mars Global Surveyor project manager.
     Mission planners were concerned that the panel might make the spacecraft unstable during in-flight maneuvers. However, the spacecraft performed a successful trajectory correction on November 21, performing a 43-second burn which adjusted the orbit of the spacecraft onto a trajectory which will intercept Mars.
     The original trajectory intentionally just missed Mars so the Delta booster which trails MGS will not impact the planet.
     A second concern about the bent solar panel is when the spacecraft arrives at Mars. MGS will use aerobraking in the Martian atmosphere to circularize its orbit around the planet. A bent panel might disrupt the aerobraking procedure and jeopardize the spacecraft.
     The fact that MGS launched just one day later than scheduled will help alleviate the problem. "Since we launched early in our window of opportunity, we will not have to aerobrake as fast to reach the mapping orbit, and this reduced the amount of heating that the solar panels are exposed to," Cunningham said.
     "This reduced heating should allow us to tilt the array in such a way to prevent it from folding up and yet still provide enough aerobraking force."
     The cause of the stuck solar panel has been traced to be a "damper arm", a piece of metal that is part of the solar panel deployment mechanism. The damper bar likely broke during the deployment of the panel and may be trapped in the 5-cm (2-inch) space between the solar panel and the rest of the spacecraft.

Hubble Observes Quasars, Cartwheel Galaxy

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have found that quasars are even more mysterious than once thought and have found giant comet-shaped clouds of gas in a off-shaped galaxy.
[Images from HST]     Two teams used the Hubble Space Telescope to study quasars, baffling object no larger than the solar system but 100 to 1,000 time brighter than a galaxy. Supermassive black holes are believed to lie in the center of these objects, powering their tremendous output.
     Contrary to earlier thought, about half of the 20 quasars studied are in galaxies that do not appear damaged. This suggests quasars may be short-lived phenomena which may appear in many galaxies.
     "If we thought we had a complete theory of quasars before, now we know we don't," said John Bahcall of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. "The basic assumption was that there was only one kind of host galaxy, or catastrophic event, which feeds a quasar. In reality we do not have a simple picture -- we have a mess."
     Another team using HST found that quasars do form where two galaxies collide, providing one of perhaps a number of different environments conducive to the formation of quasars.
     A separate team of astronomers using the HST studied the Cartwheel Galaxy, an irregular galaxy which appears to be the remnant of a collision between two galaxies. The team found giant comet-shaped clouds of molecular hydrogen gas in the heart of the galaxy.
     The "heads" of the clouds are several hundred light-years across and the tails -- which may include newborn stars -- are 1,000 to 5,000 light-years long.
     There are two explanation for the unusual clouds. One suggests that the clouds were formed when large clouds of gas collide with a ring of gas and dust pulsing out from the center of the galaxy. A second explanation states that the clouds may be falling back into the center of the galaxy after being thrown outwards.

EUVE Studies Cold Gas Around Galaxies

Astronomers using the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer (EUVE) satellite have found a puzzling cloud of cold gas around two nearby clusters of galaxies only thirty years after a hot, X-ray-emitting gas was found in the same location.
[Image of EUVE]     The discovery suggests that there may be a large mass of cold, dark matter in the cluster which may go a long way towards explaining the "missing mass" of the universe.
     "The EUV-emitting gas and the gas it cooled to, unless it is being constantly reheated, represents a substantial fraction of or is at least equal to the X-ray-emitting gas," sand UC Berkeley astronomer Stuart Bowyer.
     Bowyer and his colleagues argued that the amount of cold gas present is too much to be explained by simply cooling the hot X-ray gas. "Maintenance of the EUV-emitting gas would require 35 times more cooling than that expected from the X-ray-emitting gas," Bowyer said.
     The gas may explain why clusters do not fly apart. The research team made no determination of the exact composition of the EUV-emitting gas.

Russia Planning Soyuz Launches from Plesetsk

Russia is designing a new version of its workhorse Soyuz rocket which is plans to use for manned missions from its northern launch facility at Plesetsk, the Chinese new agency Xinhau reported.
     The Soyuz-2, or Rus, rocket will enter flight tests next year, the news agency reported. The Soyuz-2 differs from earlier versions of the rocket by an advanced on-board computer guidance system and a newly-designed third stage.
     The Soyuz-2 will have an additional 800 kg (1760 lb.) payload capacity. Russian planners reportedly plan to use it in the future to launch Soyuz capsules from the northern facility at Plesetsk instead of the current facility at Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
     Russia currently uses the Soyuz-U to launch manned and unmanned payloads to the Mir space station. A more powerful version, the Soyuz-U2, was taken out of service this year when the fuel it used was no longer available.

Teledesic Studies Indian Launch Option

Teledesic, the satellite communications company partially owned by Bill Gates, is considering using Indian launch vehicles to launch part of its constellation of 840 low Earth orbit communications satellites.
     The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) reported on November 18 that is was prepared to build and launch "a considerable number" of the 840 spacecraft. Preliminary discussions are underway and a final agreement may be signed next February, when Gates visits India.
     India would use its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which has seen limited use to date, to launch the 700-kg Teledesic spacecraft. ISRO believes it can build satellites at half the price and launch them at a third of the price of American and European competitors.
     Teledesic plans to orbit a constellation of communications satellites starting in 2001 to provide high-speed data communications from anywhere on the planet. The $9-billion project would provide data transmission at 2 megabits to 1 gigabit per second.
     One-third of Teledesic is owned by Gates, chairman of Microsoft. An additional third is owned by cellular phone mogul Craig McCaw.

Other News

CNN reports that Vice President Al Gore will be sponsoring a special Mars symposium on December 11 for about 20 members of the scientific and religious communities. The symposium will discuss the evidence for past and possibly present life on Mars, and the impact such a discovery will have. The National Academy of Sciences is preparing a number of whit papers to be discussed at the meeting. The symposium is seen as a prelude to the bipartisan space summit planned for early next year.

Much to the relief of the three-man crew on the Mir space station, the Progress M-33 supply craft docked with the space station on November 22. The cargo craft carried food, including fresh vegetables, for the two Russians and one American on the station and brought other supplies which should remedy their previous waste-disposal problems... An Atlas 2 rocket launched a European communications satellite on November 21. The Hot Bird 2 satellite, owned by Eutelsat, was placed into geosynchronous orbit, where it will be used to provide dozens of television channels to customers from Europe to Kazakhstan.

Cooperation in space ventures was one of the areas of an agreement signed November 18 between the French and Japanese governments. Under the "20 Points for the Year 2000" program, the French space agency CNES and the Japanese space agency NASDA will work together to develop satellite communications systems. France may also play a role in Japan's "Planet B" mission to Mars, scheduled for launch in two years...China unveiled plans for a $1-billion radiotelescope project in a rugged region in the southwest corner of the country. The plans calls for 30 large radiotelescopes spread over a 1-kilometer area. The radio telescopes would be incorporated into the terrain, noted for its unusual limestone pinnacles which would provide "a perfect setting" according to one Chinese scientist.

[Image of Mars meteorite]Rocks from the Red Planet didn't provide enough greenbacks for one collector. Three Martian meteorites went on the auction block in New York November 20 but failed to produce a bid high enough for the collector. Bidding quickly raised the price from the $500,000 opening bid to $1.1 million, but failed to go any higher for the collection. "We are very disappointed that the meteorites did not sell tonight," Arlen Ettinger, president of Guernsey's auction house, said. Before the auction Ettinger had predicted a selling price of $1.5 to 2 million. Despite the failure to sell, the price of Martian meteorites overall has quadrupled since the August announcement of past life on Mars found in one meteorite, according to Simon Clemett, one of the members of team that studies the now-famous ALH 84001.

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