NASA Orbiter Believed Lost Near Mars

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - NASA officials say a $125 million dollar spacecraft that was being touted as NASA's first interplanetary weather satellite was presumed destroyed as it approached Mars.

Space agency officials believe the Mars Climate Orbiter failed to regain contact with Earth following a critical engine firing that would have been placed it in Martian orbit.

Richard Cook of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told a press briefing that a preliminary analysis shows the orbiter approached Mars too closely and likely broke into pieces or burned up in the Martian atmosphere.

NASA officials are investigating the cause of the problem. Cook said the problem likely stemmed from human or software error and not a mechanical problem with the spacecraft. "We believe the spacecraft came in at a lower altitude than we predicted", Cook said, "depending on how low that was, it could be the total loss of the mission."

The orbiter was one of two probes that were scheduled to arrive at Mars to study the weather and search for any evidence of water on the red planet. Its companion orbiter, the Mars Polar Lander was separately launched and due to arrive in December.

NASA officials said they do not believe the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter will hurt America's space program in the long run.