Lost NASA spacecraft may have broken apart

Sunday, August 18, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- NASA's missing $159 million spacecraft may have broken apart while firing its rocket to leave Earth's orbit, new photographic evidence shows.

Images taken Friday by a telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona show two parallel trails near one of the predicted positions for the Contour spacecraft, which was to leave for a multiyear mission to explore comets.

"The problem is that there are two objects in this image," mission director Robert Farquhar told reporters in a call from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, which built Contour and manages the mission for NASA.

"This is pretty bad news," he said, noting that despite his discouragement officials had not confirmed that the objects were parts of the spacecraft. He said the search would go on through the weekend.

The processed telescope image, little more than spots of light on a dark background to the untrained eye, was posted on the Web site of the Spacewatch Project, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona.

Objects 155 miles apart

At the time the image was taken, the two objects were 155 miles apart and 248,000 miles from Earth, Farquhar said. If they were pieces of the spacecraft, they were moving slightly slower than expected, he said.

Mission officials planned to use a giant radar antenna at the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico and the Goldstone radar station in the California desert to bounce signals off the objects.

The search also included an extensive effort employing NASA's Deep Space Network antennas, Jet Propulsion Laboratory navigators and an array of observatories to catch a signal or otherwise definitively determine what happened to the spacecraft.

Contour was programmed to ignite its solid-propellant rocket motor early Thursday to leave orbit. Until then the mission had gone perfectly, Farquhar said.

The spacecraft was out of contact at the time of the firing and was supposed to send a signal confirming the burn less than an hour later. Instead there was silence.

There were no early indications of what may have happened to Contour.

The spacecraft was programmed to make extensive efforts to contact Earth if it didn't receive a command for 96 hours. That would occur sometime Monday.

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