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20-Oct-99 | MCO hits Martian atmosphere, is lost

On Thursday, September 23, Mars Climate Orbiter fired its main engine for approximately 17 minutes to drop out of heliocentric orbit and begin Mars Orbit Insertion. Sadly, a navigational error led MCO to pass some 80 kilometers closer to the planet than was intended, and the spacecraft was destroyed during the pass through the Martian atmosphere. The mistake has been traced to confusion over units of measurement: spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin specified the force of manoeuvring thrusters in pounds; JPL controllers assumed the thrust was in newtons.

Though NASA is downplaying the loss as part of the risk involved in their “faster, cheaper, better” strategy, the mistake is a major embarrassment to the agency, and a review board has been convened for “process improvement.” One of two ships in the Mars Surveyor 1998 program, MCO was intended to perform a full Martian year of observations to better understand the seasonal changes on that planet. It was launched from Cape Canaveral on 11 December, 1998, the 264th launch of a Delta rocket.

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