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The Mars climate orbiter was a space probe launched by NASA to gather data on Mars. The probe was to act a relay for the Mars lander on the surface of the planet helping to transmit the data it collected back to Earth. The mission was to last two Earth years. The Mars Climate orbiter was launched in December of 1998 and was to arrive at the orbit insertion near Mars in September of 1999. Due to navigational error it was unable to complete its orbital insertion and begin the real phase of its mission. This made it one of the major mission failures for NASA before the end of the 20th century.
The Mars Climate orbiter was contracted as a joint effort of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab. The Craft was built to specifications by Lockheed Martin Astronautics. The craft was launched using the Delta launch vehicle. The design of the Mars Climate Orbiter was created with the purpose of making interplanetary exploration using smaller probes that could cost less to build but still perform the same duties as the traditional probes used in previous missions. In fact the Mars Climate Orbiter was only 2.1 meters tall, 1.6 meters wide, and 2 meters Deep.It was not really something that could comfortably take a person to Mars.
The Mars climate orbiter and lander combo’s mission was to observe Mars’ climate and atmosphere. Among the submissions was to find further evidence of liquid water and observe climate and weather patterns that could be useful to future missions. It also was to provide daily data on weather and even look into possible evidence of past climate change on the planet. In fact it carried instruments from other Mars missions that were not green lighted due to cost considerations.
The real doom of the orbiter lay not in its design but in its navigation as it was inserted into orbit around Mars. The spacecraft was meant to enter an orbit 226 km above Mars’ surface. However, human error in calculation of the metrics had the craft actually enter in at a much closer orbit of 57 km. On September 23, NASA lost communication with the orbiter. A month later it was determined that the orbiter had disintegrated in the atmosphere.
The attempt at a cheaper more effective method of exploring Mars was thwarted with the ignominos end of the Mars Climate Orbiter. Even with the attempted savings the orbiter and lander together cost a stagger $327.6 million. The incident involving the Mars climate orbiter shows how even the best designed mission into space is never a sure thing. There is always the chance of equipment failure or simple human error that could make a mission fail.
We have written many articles about Mars Climate Orbiter for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the mission to Mars, and here’s an article about man on Mars.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Missions to Mars. Listen here, Episode 92: Missions to Mars, Part 1.