A Soviet spacecraft en route to Mars is now completely out of control due to a command error from the ground, robbing an international team of scientists of a key player in one of the most ambitious programs ever undertaken to study the sun, U.S. scientists have been informed.
Even if the spacecraft, Phobos 1, is eventually recovered, it will be too late for it to take part in a worldwide program this month to examine the sun simultaneously with a wide range of instruments as part of the "International Solar Month.""We're devastated," said Joan Schmelz, a solar physicist with Applied Research Corp., who is under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C.
Schmelz said she was notified by a colleague in Moscow that Soviet officials have not ruled out re-establishing contact with the spacecraft, but even if that eventually is accomplished, the results of the solar research program "will not be as fantastic as we had expected."
The erroneous command apparently caused the spacecraft to lose its orientation with the sun and its communication antenna is no longer pointed at the Earth. It is probably wobbling as it speeds along on its seven-month trip to Mars.
U.S. experts believe, however, that computers aboard Phobos 1 likely will correct the problem automatically if the craft's wobble eventually points its solar sensors toward the sun.
But that could take three or four weeks, and by then much of the research this month will have been completed.