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Japanese Mars Probe: Unlucky Guy Gets Second Chance

passing by on route to Mars
by Thorsten Dambeck
Berlin - Jun 20, 2003
This year's "Mars hunt" should soon have a new participant: After five involuntarily idle years in space, the Japanese craft "Nozomi" will try an Earth swing-by this week when it passed Earth as close as 11,000 kilometers July 19 (at 14.43 GMT), and by using the Earth's gravity, was set on a new trajectory towards the red planet where it should arrive around New Year.

Once in Mars orbit, Nozomi will meet two older NASA orbiters and the ESA Mars Express which should arrive simultaneously. But unlike the piggy-backed European Beagle 2 and the US twin rovers, it will not land. Instead of letting it crawl in red dust, Nozomi's creators are interested in the sun's impact on the upper Martian atmosphere. Here, the solar wind seems to radically erode the planet's thin carbon dioxide air.

The scientists involved have mixed feelings about today's course corrections, despite the officially declared optimism: "I don't think there will be a problem", told Yasunori Matokawa, director of the Kagoshima Space Center that launched the mission in 1998. "We've done all we can and now we just have to see what happens."

But his agency's spacecraft has been afflicted with a run of bad luck right from the start: After visiting the Earth's moon six months after takeoff, an earlier Earth swing-by was supposed to trigger the extra drive for the long way to Mars. Additionally, the rocket engine was started for a "powered swing by".

But this plan was thwarted by a leaky valve: The rocket engine burned far too much fuel. And since the operators did not want to reach Mars with an empty fuel tank, they pulled all emergency brakes and denied the "boozer" his last gulp. Thus the unlucky guy never reached the trajectory towards Mars until today.

The new alternative route was supposed to save energy and ultimately save the 88 million dollar project. The only disadvantage of this pirouette course: Nozomi had to wait over four years until 2003 for the next ride to the red planet. At first it seemed as if this wait required nothing but patience.

"We were even able to operate our dust measuring device MDC for several years between the two planets", Robert Senger of the Technical University in Munich, Germany explains. The physicist is in charge of this sensitive on board tool.

"But originally, we wanted to proof the existence of Martian dust rings!" Some theorists have predicted these dust zones, stemming from meteorite impacts on Phobos and Deimos, the two miniature Mars moons.

"The dispersed surface material has supposedly settled along the moons' orbits", the scientist elaborates, but they have yet to be proved.

But Nozomi would need a very lucky star to bring this dust device from Munich to its final destination. The long space vacation has weathered Nozomi: In 2002, strong sun flares flooded most of its delicate systems with high-energy particles.

"These showers damaged crucial components of Nozomi's energy supply, which should normally power the data recording and heat control", Senger sums up the loss report. Despite all difficulties, no one considers to abandon the Nozomi ("hope") mission.

In the next few weeks, Senger's Japanese colleagues will desperately try to repair their fosterling, for they are still able to manoeuvre it. If this crisis management should work, the many fathers of this ill-fated craft hope to receive their due share of space fame.

"It is difficult to put Nozomi's chances into definite percentages", says Hajime Hayakawa of ISAS, the Japanese Institute of Space and Astronautical Science. But still, he gives his personal estimation: "I would assume the chances to be about fifty-fifty."

Dr.Thorsten Dambeck is a science writer based in Germany. This is a translation of an article that appeared this week in Spiegel Online.

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Scientists Eager To Get On Board ExoMars
Paris - May 27, 2003
For centuries, mankind has wondered whether alien life exists on another planet in our solar system. One of the most promising places to discover signs of life beyond Earth is the planet Mars, and scientists around the globe are clamouring for an opportunity to participate in ExoMars, an exobiology mission which is being planned as part of ESA's pioneering Aurora Programme.

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