CONTOUR I Lost; CONTOUR II Planning Underway

By Keith Cowing
August 26, 2002
Filed under ,

In a telecon with reporters today, representatives from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory said that they were already considering a CONTOUR II mission. This news comes as the team begins to move on after an apparent total mission failure of CONTOUR “I”.

The summary given by Mission Director Robert Farquhar, Edward Reynolds, CONTOUR Project Manager, and Joseph Veverka, CONTOUR Principal Investigator at Cornell University confirmed what has already been released.

According to Farquhar “We had a big problem during the firing on August 15th of the solid rocket motor. The spacecraft was fine going into the burn.” Telescope observations on Earth have identified the spacecraft and show that it is approximately 3% short of its expected flight path.

“We saw two pieces and later we found a third,” Farquhar said. “We are not very optimistic about chances of ever recovering CONTOUR again. We have an obligation to make sure that the spacecraft is indeed lost.” With hopes fading, Frarquar said that listening session using the Deep Space Network (DSN) had been scaled back to one pass per week.

There is one last window when the mission team will concentrate its DSN efforts for one last attempt to contact the spacecraft. In December a combination of Earth’s position and the coverage of CONTOUR’s antenna make contact chances optimal.

Telescopic observations of the three spacecraft pieces focused on the brightness of each object relative to each other – and the stars. No clear identification has been assigned to any of the pieces.

While all of the participants in the telecon stressed the extremely preliminary status of investigating what happened, two working theories have been postulated.

One is that there was outright component failure in the solid rocket motor. The other is that there was a systemic failure of the spacecraft that was related to either the acceleration of the solid rocket motor’s firing – or heating that resulted from its operation.

Some suggestion that the solid rocket motor was allowed to get too cold or “cold soak” and that this might have been a cause of mission failure due some sort of engine malfunction was discounted my the mission team.

There is some similarity between New Horizons Pluto spacecraft and CONTOUR. While the propulsion system is mounted differently, the avionics within both spacecraft are similar. When asked if CONTOUR’s problems might orce a relook at New Horizon’s avionics, the team was quick to respond that the CONTOUR spacecraft’s avionics had worked flawlessly and very smoothly up until the solid rocket motor firing and that there was no indication that the avionics played any role whatsoever in this accident.

The CONTOUR team has managed to retain its enthusiasm for the spacecraft’s mission even if hopes fade for the spacecraft itself. They are already talking about a CONTOUR II mission. The only major change that the team would admit to favoring is one having to do with propulsion. Reynolds said “I am trying to talk Bob into not using a solid rocket motor in this particular revisit to the mission.”

Although a proposal has not been presented to NASA yet, a mission that does not use an engine firing – thus allowing a direct launch into the appropriate trajectory is under consideration. This would require a Delta 7925, which is more expensive than the launch vehicle used to launch the current CONTOUR spacecraft.

The original mission cost $97 million. Since there are no flight spares, new hardware would have to be built or procured. Given that the initial design had already been paid for, the process of constructing a new spacecraft would be somewhat cheaper – although no one participating in the telecon would venture a cost guess at this point. No source of funds for a repeat mission was identified either – nor has anything been presented to NASA Headquarters.

If the CONTOUR team is able to somehow communicate with the spacecraft and operate its systems, there is some hope that it could be maneuvered during a repeat visit to Earth so as to accomplish some part of its original mission: a visit to Comet Encke. Of course, given that the spacecraft is returning only silence, there are a great number of “ifs” that need to be answered before any mission recovery can even be attempted – much less considered.

Related Press Releases

  • CONTOUR stories

    Related Status Reports

  • CONTOUR Status 23 Aug 2002: Team Scales Back CONTOUR Monitoring
  • CONTOUR Status Report 21 Aug 2002: Six Days and Still No Signal
  • CONTOUR Mission Status Report August 19, 2002 — 4:00 p.m. (EDT)
  • CONTOUR Status 18 Aug 2002: Current Operations: Radar and Radio Checks
  • CONTOUR Mission Status Report August 16, 2002 — 9:30 p.m. (EDT)
  • Search for CONTOUR Continues
  • CONTOUR Contact Attempts Continue August 15, 2002 — 7:30 p.m. (EDT)
  • Mission Operations Awaiting Contact from CONTOUR Spacecraft August 15, 2002 — 1 p.m. (EDT)
  • Mission Operations Awaiting Contact from CONTOUR Spacecraft August 15, 2002 — 9:15 a.m. (EDT)

  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.