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Japan admits its Mars probe is failing

After weeks of uncertainty, space agency says team is struggling with Nozomi’s power system glitch



Nov 21, 2003 -- After months of silence and a week of hopeful half-truths, Japanese space officials have finally confirmed that their Mars-bound Nozomi probe is teetering on the brink of failure in its five-year quest to explore the Red Planet.

During this voyage it became the first human space vehicle to make an Earth-Mars-Earth round trip after navigation and power problems thwarted original plans. Ingenious flight planning and fine-tuned space navigation gave the probe an unprecedented second chance to reach Mars. But that genuine 'space odyssey' now appears doomed.

A statement released Friday in Tokyo by JAXA – the newly-formed Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, created from three formerly separate organizations -- described how the probe ”right now is under ‘the last challenge’ to repair its malfunction . . . which must be concentrated [on] by all [the] task force of scientists and engineers of [the] mission team until its outcome is clearly known.”

This concentration was offered as explanation for why nobody previously had any time to tell the public what was really going on. “As long as [the] ‘NOZOMI’ team is at work,” the statement read, “please give us a little more time until around Dec.10. When final result is known, we are ready to explain everything


Spaceflight operations veterans have told msnbc.com that refusing to give up despite the odds is a proper approach. However, they expressed dismay at Japan’s lack of candor with the public – especially as it may raise false hopes that will be later be dashed.

Last week, the mission's project manager, Hajime Hayakawa, told a reporter in Tokyo that his team still was trying to fix the probe’s malfunctioning electrical circuits. But he admitted that “If we can't fix Nozomi's problems in time, it is very likely that it won't be able to enter Mars' orbit." He added, "At this point, we don't know the percentage of its chance of successfully entering into a Mars orbit."

And Professor Ichiro Nakatani, the spacecraft manager, assured the American organization, “The Planetary Society”, "Nozomi is just on the right orbit to reach Mars on December 14 (JST)." However, he added hopefully, "It is true that we have a problem with one of the subsystems and we are now in the process of recovery operation."

Neither official provided assessments of the likelihood of a successful recovery. But according to the Associated Press, Firouz Naderi, NASA’s manager of the Mars Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, told reporters on Monday that Nozomi "most probably won't make it." He was further quoted as saying, "The obituary is not out yet but you can hardly detect a pulse now."

Sources within the planetary science community have told msnbc.com that the probe’s power control system was severely damaged by a solar flare a year and a half ago. This prevents the probe from sending science data, and from operating propellant tank heaters to keep the liquids from freezing as it recedes from the Sun. This in turn would prevent the main rocket firing designed to slow down the probe and place it into orbit around Mars.

Beginning last summer, Japanese ground control engineers have been sending repeated commands to the power control system in hopes that eventually it will shift into a configuration that can accept and obey the commands. After thousands of radioed commands from Earth, the probe remained unresponsive. Not even foreign scientists with instruments aboard the probe were informed of the progress of this recovery attempt.

At a space conference in Houston earlier this week, Mr. Masato Koyama, JAXA’s Washington Office director, finally rated the prospects for the recovery effort. “It’s hard to recover the system,” he told the audience in response to a direct question about the probe’s status. He told conferees he did not think the recovery would succeed.

Today’s official JAXA statement denied one Tokyo press report that probe was doomed to impact Mars and possibly contaminate the planet contrary to an international ‘space quarantine’ treaty. “The truth is that ‘NOZOMI’ will, if going as it is, approach Mars on December 14 by 894 km passing above Martian surface at its closest approach,” the statement said, “but there would not be excluded a theoretical possibility of colliding with Mars by more or less one percent, if we take the error of orbit determination into account.”

“If not restored,” the statement continued, “we will try to adjust the closest approach as far as possible from 894km. In this case, ‘NOZOMI’ will, after once approaching Mars, escape from Martian gravitational sphere to become an artificial planet going around the orbit of the sun forever.”

Onboard the probe is an aluminum plate etched with the names of people who responded to a pre-launch campaign, "Send your names to Mars!" Instead of reaching Mars, the statement concluded, “The names of 270,000 people will keep on circling around the sun for hundreds of million years.”

Nozomi was launched in mid-1998 and first flew past Mars late the following year. However, it was unable to enter its planned survey orbit, and instead had to circle back around the Sun, fly past Earth twice to shift its orbit, and then head for Mars a second time.

JAXA’s statement showed that controllers have not yet given up hope for ‘Nozomi’ (which actually means ‘hope’ in Japanese). “We believe what the mission team can do is not to give up, but to do the best until the very last moment.” They will not admit defeat until December 9th, five days before the scheduled arrival, when a small rocket burn planned to trim the approach path would instead be used to divert the probe as far away from Mars as possible.

So for now, neither the Nozomi probe, nor the hopes of its operators and the thousands of ordinary Japanese whose names are carried on it, are yet irretrievably lost.


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