Spacecraft have been lost before...

Nasa lost contact with a $159-million spacecraft when the robotic probe was to have left Earth’s orbit on a years-long journey to explore several comets.

The mission’s operations team was seeking to regain communication on Thursday with the Contour spacecraft, which was supposed to automatically fire its solid-rocket motor at 0849 GMT to boost itself out of the orbit.

At the time, the octagonal spacecraft was about 225 kilometres above the Indian Ocean and was too close to Earth and moving too fast for Nasa’s Deep Space Network of antennas to track.

The network was to have picked up a signal from Contour 48 minutes after the burn, as the spacecraft moved away from Earth. Instead it vanished.

By late Thursday afternoon, the giant dish antennas in California, Australia and Spain continued to search for the spacecraft, alternately sending it commands and listening for a response. Nothing was heard from Contour - short for Comet Nucleus Tour.

“I guess we are still certainly hoping this will turn out all right.
Spacecraft have been lost before and safely regained,” said Michael Belton, a member of the mission’s science team.

The mission’s operations team looked for Contour at points along the predicted paths the spacecraft was supposed to have taken. If the motor did not fire, the spacecraft would have remained stuck in Earth orbit.

“They are operating on the assumption that the burn went as planned,” said Michael Buckley, a representative for Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Johns Hopkins built the spacecraft, with assistance from Cornell University, for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“There is still some cautious optimism over there,” Buckley

added. The spacecraft was in Earth orbit since its launch July 3, looping around the planet every 42 hours on an elliptical path.

Thursday’s motor firing was designed to increase the spacecraft’s velocity by 6 917 kph, releasing it from the Earth’s grasp and sending it on a comet-chasing orbit around the sun.

The mission plan called for Contour to meet up with comet Encke in 2003, Schwassman-Wachmann 3 in 2006 and perhaps comet d’Arrest in 2008.

Contour is part of Nasa’s Discovery program of quickly developed, low-cost missions. None of the previous five Discovery missions, which include 1997’s Mars Pathfinder, has failed.

“It would be the first. We certainly hope it’s not,” Nasa representative Don Savage said. - Sapa-AP

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