NASA may have lost its Contour (for Comet Nucleus Tour) spacecraft, which was scheduled to study at least two comets up close and personal in 2003 and 2006. Yesterday, while orbiting Earth, Contour's rocket motor was supposed to propel the craft into deep space. But some 45 minutes later, when Contour's signal should have been picked up, the screens at mission control stayed black.
Contour was launched into Earth orbit on 3 July. The rocket burn of 15 August should have put the $159 million spacecraft on a trajectory to comets Encke and Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, one very old and one relatively new comet. Astronomers hoped that high-resolution closeups of the nuclei of the two comets would shed light on the diversity of these small, frozen remnants of the solar system's birth.
"The loss of Contour would be a basic setback for the near future of cometary science," says Gerhard Schwehm of the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, who is the project scientist for the European Rosetta mission to comet Wirtanen, due to be launched on 13 January 2003. However, Schwehm says the bigger impact might be a loss of confidence in NASA's fast, cheap "Discovery-class" missions of which Contour is the sixth. Earlier Discovery missions also encountered technical mishaps--though so far none this serious.
Meanwhile, mission operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland haven't given up all hope yet. So far, says spokesperson Michael Buckley, Contour hasn't been spotted in its original orbit by telescopes and radar stations on the ground, so it looks as if the rocket burn indeed took place. Efforts to reestablish contact with the craft could go on for a few days or weeks, says Buckley.