Published: Sunday 15 December 1996

A RUSSIAN space probe to Mars which lifted off on schedule on November 16 from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, crashed into the southern Pacific Ocean, west of South America, near the Easter islands, the next day. The probe carried four thermoelectric generators fuelled by radioactive plutonium.

The plutonium isotope is several hundred times more radioactive than the plutonium used for military purposes and is highly carcinogenic. Russian space scientists hasten to assure that the plutonium had been packed in special canisters designed to withstand the heat of entering the atmosphere or even the shock of a fall on solid rock.

Said Anatomy Yeremenko, mission control specialist, "We do not know what happened yet." According to disappointed scientists, ten years of work has been lost with the space probe debacle. With the tremendous interest gene-rated about life on Mars, many nations including us, France and Germany had sent scientific instruments aboard the Russian spacecraft. The probe's early demise has dealt a devastating blow to the cash-starved Russian space mission programme.

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