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Glitch causes 1-year delay in Mars mapping mission

Surveyor November 10, 1997
Web posted at: 9:42 p.m. EST (0242 GMT)

PASADENA, California (Reuters) -- A mechanical problem on board the tiny robotic spacecraft orbiting Mars will force a one-year delay in its main mission to map the entire red planet, U.S. space officials said Monday.

Scientists had hoped to begin charting the Martian surface next March. But they said a small fracture in a hinge or "yoke" between the Mars Global Surveyor and a solar panel has required a slower flight path.

"Essentially, we will begin mapping the surface of Mars in mid-March 1999, during summer in the northern hemisphere," project manager Glenn Cunningham told reporters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Originally, we had planned to begin mapping on March 15, 1998."

Cunningham said the delay might add several million dollars to the final cost of the mission but that the technical difficulties came with a silver lining -- the opportunity for scientists to study Mars' surface from new angles while waiting for repairs.

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"The bottom line message is that this is actually a far better mission than our original mission," he said. "The happenstance of the broken yoke has led us down a path we never expected. It's an unexpected bonus."

Cunningham and other project scientists used a news conference to make that point Monday, showing new pictures of the Martian landscape taken by Surveyor.

The pictures showed canyons, escarpments and large, flat areas that resemble dry lakebeds on Earth.

Surveyor, launched late last year, was designed to circle Mars for two years, making a detailed map of the surface and beaming back data about the planet's climate and weather patterns.

Eventually, the $148 million craft will produce a topographic map of the entire planet, a tool scientists intend to use in choosing landing sites or research prospects for future missions.

Surveyor will also examine the terrain for evidence of water and conditions that could have supported life in the past.

Cunningham said the craft should be able to achieve those objectives despite the year-long delay, though scientists are considering shortening the total length of the mapping mission from one year to nine months.

The Surveyor mission switches the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's attention on Mars to the orbiter and away from the Mars Pathfinder.

Last week, scientists officially declared an end to the Pathfinder space mission -- four months to the day that the craft landed on Mars to unravel the secrets of the red planet.

Scientists said the project in effect came to an abrupt halt about six weeks ago when they lost communication with the Pathfinder lander and its little rover, Sojourner.

Copyright 1997 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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