Russian Planetary Science Sinks With Mars '96

WASHINGTON, D.C., and MOSCOW--When the Mars '96 spacecraft slammed into the Pacific Ocean yesterday, it was not only the charred remnants of 6 tons of instruments, radioactive fuel, and other hardware that vanished into the depths. The crash also appears to have sunk the future of the once proud Russian planetary science community.

Russian space officials said Russian Space Agency (RSA) chief Yuri Koptev already has ruled out a replacement mission in 1998, adding that the agency would emphasize less expensive astrophysics missions. "There has been a fight between the astrophysical community and the planetary people. Our downfall is their win," says Lev Mukhin, a planetary scientist with the Russian embassy in Washington.

The probe's failure before it escaped Earth orbit also dampened expectations for the wave of spacecraft slated to rendezvous with the planet next year. Mars '96 carried an orbiter, two landers, and two soil penetrators, each equipped with instruments provided by an international team of researchers (Science, 15 November, p. 1075).

Hopes for data from Mars next year now lie with two U.S. missions. Mars Surveyor, launched on 7 November, is on its way, and Mars Pathfinder is slated to go up on 2 December. NASA will continue discussions about a U.S.-Russian flight in 2001, but the space science chief Wes Huntress says the agency "would be a little nervous" conducting a joint effort in which Russian hardware is critical to the mission.

In the meantime, Russian space officials must conduct a grim autopsy on Mars '96. The Proton rocket lifted off from the Kazakh steppes just before midnight Moscow time on 16 November. But as the spacecraft entered orbit with the launcher's fourth stage, the spacecraft's engine ignited prematurely, sending the probe into a wild tumble that ended between the Chilean coast and Easter Island, according to Yuri Milov, RSA deputy director. The government has set up a special commission to determine what caused the failure, but Russian industry officials say they suspect that the real problem stemmed from a mechanical flaw: The rocket and spacecraft testing, they say, was done on the cheap.

No matter who's at fault, the failure has left Russian planetary scientists despondent. Roald Sagdeev, former chief of Moscow's Space Science Institute (IKI) and now a professor at the University of Maryland, spoke with IKI chief Albert Galeev shortly after the failure. Galeev, Sagdeev told ScienceNOW, was "barely speaking" and clearly in "terrible shape." Such sentiments are shared by many scientists at IKI headquarters in Moscow, where after the crushing news broke, a fancy postlaunch banquet to honor the mission and international guests grew cold. Says Sagdeev, "Instead of a celebration, it has turned into a funeral."

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