Post-mortem conducted on failed Mars mission

MOSCOW (AP) — With their Mars spacecraft lost in the Pacific Ocean, Russia’s beleaguered space scientists tried to pinpoint what went wrong and conceded Monday they don’t have the money for another try.
Space officials, looking haggard after two sleepless nights, could not say precisely what caused the collapse of Mars 96, which came crashing down in several parts somewhere near Easter Island.
But the spacecraft, designed to reach Mars next September, never made it out of Earth’s orbit after the rocket’s fourth-stage engine failed to provide enough speed.
“It has hit the whole space program hard,” Yuri Milov, deputy director of the Russian Space Agency, told a news conference. “We don’t plan any other mission of the kind.”
Russia’s space program has been struggling since the 1991 Soviet breakup, and the impoverished Russians gambled a large chunk of their meager resources on Mars ’96. With its failure, there is no prospect of any major new missions in the foreseeable future.
Milov said the Russians would cooperate on Mars research with the United States, which plans 10 missions to the red planet over the next decade. He said the two sides would begin discussing details in December.
Russian space officials believe the craft fell into the South Pacific in two parts, with the probe splashing down between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m EST Saturday.
Fragments of the engine crashed separately, but in the same area and almost exactly 24 hours later, at 8:20 p.m. EST Sunday, the Russian officials added.
Stanislav Kulikov, chief designer of the Lavochkin space complex, which built the probe, said the likely cause of failure was either the probe’s automatic control system or the fourth-stage engine.
But Vyacheslav Filin of the Energia corporation, which created the engine, denied responsibility. The fourth-stage engine was custom-made for the Mars mission and acted on electronic commands from the probe, he insisted.
The scientists agreed that four small plutonium-powered generators aboard the probe, each about the size of a film canister, had withstood the crash without posing any radioactive risks.
The generators contained a total of 270 grams of Plutonium-238, officials said.
“They were tested under conditions far harsher than natural ones,” Milov said. “There was no danger they might break into fragments while entering the atmosphere or spread radiation.”
Predictions that the craft might fall on Australia put military and civil defense teams there on high alert Monday, even though the plutonium had gone down with the craft a day earlier.
The engine came down about 620 miles west of Chile, according to Alan Hodges, director general of Emergency Management Australia.
Scientists bemoaned the loss of the ambitious Russian project, designed to investigate the evolution of the Martian atmosphere, its surface and the interior of a planet where some scientists say there is evidence of life.
“Mars is a very difficult place and complicated. And we can’t afford to lose these missions — either us or the Russians,” said David McKay, one of the NASA researchers who recently found meteorite evidence that life might once have existed on Mars.
The spacecraft’s loss further darkens the already bleak prospects of the Russian space industry. Its shrinking budgets may dry up even more, and the very public failure could hurt Russian efforts to attract Western partners.
“When we meet colleagues from the United States or Germany we look so poor I’m ashamed to talk about it,” Filin said.
The probe, booster rocket and launching services cost Russia about $122 million, Milov said.
Along with Russian-made scientific equipment, Mars 96 carried $180 million worth of Western instruments from several nations, including the United States, Germany and France.
“All of us feel pain that it ended this way and that money was spent in vain,” Milov said.