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28-Aug-02 | Hope fades for NASA’s CONTOUR mission.

On 15 August CONTOUR was due to fire its on-board solid motor to leave Earth orbit, but since that time no signals from the spacecraft have been received. Adding to the concern is a 16 August telescope observation that appears to show two objects along CONTOUR’s intended trajectory, possibly a sign of catastrophic failure. (A third, smaller object has since been spotted.) One drawback to tracking efforts is the fact that at the time of ignition, the Deep Space Network (DSN) was unable to track the spacecraft due to its low altitude (about 120 nm); to this author this was a major flaw in the mission design. Operators have stepped down from the emergency nearly-continuous monitoring mode to free up the DSN for other missions. Communications attempts will now be made about once a week, and a concerted last-ditch attempt to communicate will be made in early December. Meanwhile, an investigation team has been formed, to be led by newly-appointed NASA Chief Engineer Theron M. Bradley Jr, a former nuclear engineer for the U.S. Navy. (NASA Press Release, 26-Aug-02)

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