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Russia's Mars Probe Failure Seen as a Tragedy

Space: Research equipment irreplaceable, scientists say. Joint efforts with U.S. will continue.

November 19, 1996|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and K.C. COLE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The shocking plunge of the Russian Mars96 mission into the Pacific on Sunday sank a crucial, irreplaceable piece of the worldwide scientific effort to study Mars over the next decade, scientists said Monday.

It was a "terrible, terrible tragedy," for researchers throughout the world and will have a significant ripple effect on future missions planned for the red planet, said the chief of the U.S. Mars effort, Donna Shirley of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The satellite that failed to boost itself out of Earth orbit was a "monster mission," packed with critical scientific experiments that cannot easily be duplicated, she said.

More than a ton of high-tech experiments crafted by scientists in the United States, Russia and 18 other nations were lost on the ocean floor, along with the potential riches of information they were to beam back to Earth from Mars after the spacecraft's scheduled arrival in September.

Duplicates of some instruments exist, and some may be launched on future missions. Over the next decade, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration--in cooperation with other space programs--plans to send two missions to Mars every two years.

But it is unlikely that any country will retry such an ambitious mission with such a valuable collection of hardware as that aboard Mars96.

By putting so much into a single spacecraft, said NASA chief Daniel Goldin, the Russians "really upped the ante. They've really lost five missions in one launch."

Still, Goldin said, "I haven't lost faith in our Russian partners." Cooperation with the Russians will continue as planned on an international space station that will be built by the United States, Russia, Japan and European nations, he said.

Goldin noted that missions to other planets are far more complex, and therefore more prone to failure, than Earth-orbiting missions like the space station. The Russians, he said, have a solid track record of orbiting Earth, while NASA has a better record elsewhere in the solar system. "It's much harder when you leave Earth orbit," he said. "I expect to see more failures."

NASA lost its own billion-dollar mission to the red planet, the Mars Observer, just over three years ago. The European Space Agency also lost a major science mission last month, Friedman said. "It would be very hard to do finger-pointing at this stage," he said. "The scientific community is a little used to this, I'm sad to say."

Among the experiments that vanished into the Pacific on Sunday were several poised to answer crucial questions about the possibility of life on Mars. Interest in Martian life blossomed in August when microscopic fossil-like forms were found on a meteorite from Mars that landed in Antarctica--possible evidence of an ancient population of microbes on our nearest planetary neighbor.

A chemistry experiment developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory would have measured how the corrosive Martian soil affects organic materials on its surface. The Mars Viking missions of the late 1970s discovered to everyone's surprise that the Mars surface destroys any organic compounds, Shirley said. "Any time a piece of carbon shows up [from a comet or from below the Martian surface], it gets gobbled up."

Understanding why this happens is even more important since the discovery of possible fossil life forms, said Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray, who has been involved in five failed Mars missions since the 1970s. It raises questions about how any kind of life could exist on Mars, he said.

Now, said Shirley, that information is lost. "We won't get that measurement from any instruments [planned in the near future]."

Another lost treasure was a German camera that researchers called a "beautiful" instrument--one probably too heavy to carry on any future missions. In addition, Mars96 would have made radar maps of Mars that would have indicated likely underground water sources--possible habitats for ancient life.

"It's going to hurt us," Goldin said. "It would have given us information useful in planning future missions."

France also lost $120 million worth of experiments, including a sophisticated imaging spectrometer. Because neither France nor Germany has launch vehicles, the impact on their programs is "traumatic," Murray said. With 18 different nations involved, "this was a very big deal."

Some critics said the spacecraft may have been too heavy a burden for the Proton rocket that launched it. James Oberg, a Houston-based space specialist, called Mars96 "a strikingly ambitious mission even for a healthy space program."

Altogether, the mission packed together an orbiting observatory, plus four landers, including two dart-shaped penetrators that would have buried themselves six yards into the Martian subsoil. It was six times heavier than any of the planned NASA missions planned to Mars.

"It was a truly international mission," Murray said. "And now it's all gone."

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