Japan's Lazy Bird to Mars

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What a difference a little rocket fuel makes. Nozomi, an unmanned Japanese spacecraft on a mission to Mars since its launch last July, was supposed to reach the Red Planet's orbit this October. But an unforeseen adjustment in the craft's direction has used up more fuel than was projected, and Nozomi will be a little late -- four years, to be exact.

It's a long wait for Japan's first Mars mission, but timing is everything in space. "Flying from any cosmic point A to any cosmic point B is like leading ducks when you're hunting," says TIME senior writer Jeffrey Kluger, coauthor of the book "Apollo 13." "You can't aim for where a planet is, you have to aim for where it's going to be." With a Martian year lasting roughly two of our years, missing the rendezvous means you have a while to wait before the motion of the two bodies coincides again. "If an error of one degree magnifies to many degrees when traveling on the ocean," says Kluger, "imagine what it's like in space." The mission must now wait for Mars to enter into a slower orbit around the sun in December 2003, at which point Nozuma will need less fuel to get into Martian orbit. Luckily the delay will not affect the mission's objective of broadcasting images and data back to Earth. And by then the Burger King should be open.