Three days after their Mars '96 mission plunged into the Pacific Ocean, Russian space scientists say they have a good idea what probably went wrong. And they will make a bid to try for the Red Planet again in 2001.
The Russian Academy of Sciences has formed a panel to study the failure; its preliminary report is due next week. In the meantime, scientists at Moscow's Space Science Institute (IKI), which planned the mission, have been analyzing the launch sequence themselves. The Proton rocket successfully got the spacecraft into Earth's orbit, but the spacecraft's fourth stage ignited prematurely. Russian scientists are skeptical, however, that the fourth stage itself is to blame. Instead, an emerging consensus is that the spacecraft's electronics failed, sending a faulty signal to the fourth stage. "The control system is usually not very reliable," says IKI astronomer Alexander Zakharov, who cites problems with a similar system on a previous mission.
Russian space officials have nixed a second try for Mars in 1998, the next launch window. And Russian Space Agency (RSA) officials have told IKI that, because of budget cuts, it can propose only one planetary mission in the foreseeable future. IKI officials have whittled it down to two potential missions: A joint U.S.-Russian mission to Mars in 2001 or a Russian mission to the Martian moon Phobos in 2003. "We are likely to go to Mars in 2001," says Zakharov. IKI says it intends to prepare a proposal from the Russian side in time for a meeting of the joint working group on solar system exploration next month in Florida, where NASA and RSA will discuss the mission.