What went wrong?

Published: Sunday 30 April 2000

According to the panel commissioned by the National Space and Aeronautic Administration (NASA) to find out what went wrong with the Mars Polar Lander, has said that a confused sensor may have led the lander crashing into the Red Planet. NASA lost contact with the Mars Polar Lander on December 3, 1999, when it was due to land on Mars. Tests have revealed that deploying the spacecraft's landing gear might have fooled the sensor into thinking that the craft had landed. This may have led to a command to shut down the engines that should have, in fact, slowed the lander's descent. None of the scientists thought such a scenario could happen, probably different teams were testing different elements of the landing system.

The next lander, which is based on the same design, was originally planned for launch on April 2001. But one scientist who has worked on the project says that the launch may not go ahead, and if it does, the software will be altered to make sure the sensor resets after the landing legs open.

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