Future of Mars study uncertain


  • Susan Bush


The planetology community is anxiously awaiting updates on the fate of the Mars Observer spacecraft, which abruptly lost communication with Earth at about 9:00 P.M. EDT on August 21. At this time it is unknown whether the probe is lost or has entered the orbit as planned but is unable to relay data back to engineers. The Observer was scheduled to enter the planet's orbit on August 24 and begin a detailed topographic and atmospheric study on December 16. Space agency officials have called this communications breach a “serious and lengthy loss.”

It is still too early to tell how this loss of communication will affect planetologists, said Roger Phillips, because nothing is really known about the extent of the loss. Phillips, of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University, St. Louis, Mo., noted that in the worst-case scenario of the whole mission being lost, it would be a “major blow to the planetology community.”