Japan's leading national daily the Yomiuri Shimbun is reporting that the ill fated Nozomi explorer that is Japan's first Mars probe, is expected to crash into the red planet on Dec. 14 if it remains on its current course.
According to officials at the newly formed Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) - the operating agency - the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science is urgently investigating how to avoid the impact.
The mission which has cost some $US200 million can no longer carry out its mission in any form and the priority now is to dispose of the spacecraft safely and avoid any potential contamination of Mars with any Earth microbes still on the spacecraft.
As Nozomi was only intended to be a Mars orbiter it's decontamination program was virtually non existant compared to the full scrub downs Britain Beagle 2 lander and the US twin rovers were subjected to, under agreed protocols formulated by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC.
The Nozomi was launched in 1998 and failed to enter Mars obit in October 1999. Hoping to skip back around the solar system via a two-year orbit that took it past Earth where it got a velocity boost via a gravity sling shot.
But a growing number of problems with fuel consumption and the probe's power system led to further delays in the probe's arrival at Mars and is now on expected to be the vicinity of Mars in December.
At the time of the Earth swing-by, ISAS choose an impact course with Mars, as it was effectively the shortest route to the planet. But in retrospect that plan now looks quite foolhardy given the probe's old age and the potential that any further problems could have quite clearly led to the current predicament
Since July ISAS has been attempting to repair the probe's power system, and if the power system is not repaired the satellite will be unable to fire it's main engine for orbital insertion around Mars.
If Nozimo crashes into the planet, there is some danger that the resulting debris could enter the Martian biosphere - should one exist. The consequences of any contamination remains unknown for the simple reason we have never found life anywhere else in the Solar System. Some scientists have argued that life forms from two different worlds would have no impact on each other. while other say that is a risk we cannot afford to take.
JAXA continues to try and develop a workaround and hopes that the probe's trajectory can be changed at the beginning of December via alternate thrusters and avoid a Mars impact if the main engine remains offline.
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