Missing spacecraft found, may be in pieces

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- NASA has found a missing $159 million spacecraft, thanks to a half-dozen telescope images that confirm the silent probe is in orbit around the sun but possibly broken in pieces.

Astronomers at observatories in Arizona, California, Hawaii and elsewhere have captured pictures of the Contour spacecraft, which has been silent since Thursday when it left Earth orbit to embark on a multiyear mission to visit at least two comets.

"It's orbiting the sun at this point," Michael Buckley, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, said Tuesday.

The university built and manages the mission for NASA.

The images confirm Contour fired its rocket motor as planned, but suggest something went awry, since they show two objects moving away from the Earth in tandem at 13,600 mph.

Mission members believe a portion of Contour broke off as it left Earth orbit. They are assuming the octagonal spacecraft remains largely intact, however.

If no commands are received by the spacecraft for 96 hours, it is programmed to cycle through three of its four on-board antennas and contact Earth.

That process takes 60 hours to run through and could have begun as late as 10:09 p.m. Monday. So far, nothing has been heard.

If the team does not hear from Contour by Thursday, members will make a final effort to listen in December, when the spacecraft's antennas are in a more favorable orientation.

"We're obligated to give it this last try," Contour mission operations manager Mark Holdridge said. "Who knows, we might get lucky."

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