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Above Auckland - Viewing The Red Planet

Viewing The Red Planet

Information Courtesy of Astronomy Now Online

NASA has abandoned efforts to contact the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft, effectively declaring the spacecraft dead.

Confusion between metric and imperial measurements doomed the Mars Climate Orbiter, which last week entered the Martian atmosphere at the wrong angle and burned up.

Engineers at the Lockheed Martin Astronautics company did their calculations in imperial measurements - such things as feet and pounds, which are still used in the United States - while those the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used metric, which is the standard measurement for the rest of the world and used for scientific work, including space calculations.

Tracking stations around the world were listening for signs of the probe since it went missing on Thursday as it attempted to enter orbit around the Red Planet.

Project officials are assuming the Climate Orbiter tumbled into the Martian atmosphere and burnt up after a navigation error brought it perilously close to the planet.

Mars Climate Orbiter is the latest in long line of failed missions to the Red Planet. In the last two decades only two out of seven probes have successfully conducted their missions.

The $125 million probe fired its main engine to enter orbit around Mars as planned but never reemerged after looping behind the planet during the manoeuvre.

Mars Surveyor Operations Project Manager Richard Cook anxiously awaits the signal from the probe.

As the minutes ticked by without any word from the spacecraft solemn ground controllers paced before their computer screens as it became clear that something had gone very wrong.

It was not long before stunned mission managers discovered a navigation error appeared to have placed the orbiter on a sucidal plunge into the thin Martian atmosphere.

The craft is believed to have passed only 57 kilometres (35 miles) above the surface of the planet. The original target altitude had been about 140 kilometres (about 90 miles).

"If that altitude is accurate, we don't believe on the spacecraft side that it is survivable," project manager John McNamee said.

Controllers are continuing efforts to contact the orbiter using NASA's worldwide network of tracking stations in the unlikely event it survived its close encounter with the Martian atmosphere.

An investigation has begun into the apparent loss of the spacecraft. Mars Surveyor Operations Project Manager Richard Cook said human error or a software glitch were among the possible causes. A problem with the spacecraft is not thought to be responsible.

NASA officials said the loss of the Climate Orbiter was a significant blow but efforts to explore the Red Planet with robotic probes would continue.

"We have a very robust program of exploration of Mars that involves launching a mission per year for at least a decade," said NASA's head of solar system exploration, Carl Pilcher. "It began with Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor in 1996. It continued with Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander and it's going to continue after that with additional missions launched in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

"The loss of any of those missions is very serious. But it's not devastating for the programme as a whole. The missions are designed to be complementary and as independent as possible. For example, the Mars Polar Lander is on its way to Mars right now and is going to arrive in a little over two months. it's completely independent of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the science return from the Mars Polar Lander mission will not be affected by the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter."

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