Whoops! A Wrong Turn — and a Spacecraft Is MIA

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Houston, we have a (rather embarrassing) problem. That multimillion-dollar Mars Climate Orbiter is... well, it's lost, OK. Turns out that a human or software error on the ground sent the Orbiter in too close to the Red Planet for it to survive. The problem was discovered early Thursday, 286 days after its departure from Earth, when NASA failed to receive a signal from the craft expected at 5:26 a.m. "There were systems aboard intended to help the Orbiter regain contact, but the 1993 Mars Observer showed how a Mars craft can simply spin off into the void, never to be heard from again," says TIME science correspondent Jeffrey Kluger. "Although these faster, cheaper spacecraft make it easier to cobble together a replacement if one is lost, this remains an embarrassing failure."

Mars hasn't been NASA's luckiest planet. Observer went missing shortly before it was due to arrive in 1993, and a Russian craft on a Mars mission for the U.S. agency exploded on the launchpad in 1996. Failure to restore communications with the Climate Orbiter may also nix the Polar Lander mission due to arrive on Mars on December 3. Besides collecting its own weather data, Climate Observer was due to act as a communications relay for Polar Lander to send detailed climatic data. "Itís possible that Mars Surveyor, which is still orbiting, may be able to carry some of that workload, but itís too early to tell," says Kluger. At least the Martians got something out of the Orbiter mission — a second quirky Earthling spacecraft to put in their Smithsonian.