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Soviet Mars Probe Lost in Space Because of Controller’s Error

September 9, 1988 GMT

MOSCOW (AP) _ A multimillion-dollar space probe designed to unlock the secrets of Mars fell into a ″deep lethargic sleep″ and is worthless because of a ground controller’s error, a scientist said Friday.

It was the second Soviet space mishap revealed this week.

″Only a miracle can save it now,″ Roald Z. Sagdeyev, head of the Soviet Space Research Institute, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Ground-control operators are unable to communicate with the Phobos 1 probe, now millions of miles from Earth.

This week, a Soyuz TM-5 capsule carrying two cosmonauts came close to being marooned in space because of equipment problems and mistakes by the ship’s commander delayed its return to Earth.

Sagdeyev said scientists would now have to rely on a sister ship, Phobos 2, that is also racing toward the Red Planet. Phobos 1 was launched July 7 and Phobos 2 five days later in missions that cost $480 million.

The probes were scheduled to go into orbit around Mars and in January drop behind Phobos, the larger of the planet’s two moons, to study the Martian surface, atmosphere and magnetic field.

Phobos 1 was to drop a lander that would stay in one place on the surface of the moon for a year. Phobos 2 was to deploy a lander that would hop around on the moon in 20-yard leaps, gathering and analyzing soil samples.

Phobos 1 is still moving in space, but it may not be on its planned trajectory because the orientation and guidance systems aren’t functioning. It was not immediately known how the original plan would be modified now that one of the probes is useless.

Sagdeyev said a ground control operator at the Soviet Mission Control Center near Moscow sent an incorrect command to Phobos 1 during the night of Aug. 29-30 and that a computer failed to detect the error and flash the signal, ″bad command.″ He did not say whether the faulty computer was on the ground or on board the spacecraft.

″The command signified the slow suicide of the machinery, Phobos 1,″ said Sagdeyev. ″It lost orientation, and the solar panels stopped looking at the sun. In two to three days a cooling-down of the craft occurred.″

″The machinery has simply frozen. It fell into a deep, lethargic sleep,″ the scientist said.

The mistake was only discovered three days later. Sagdeyev said investigators also determined that no second operator was on duty to check the work of the controller who made the mistake, violating the control center’s rules. He did not say if either controller was punished.

Sagdeyev, the most prominent Soviet space scientist and a major supporter of the exploration of Mars, said ground controllers were still sending signals to Phobos 1 to restore orientation, but were having no luck. He suggested they now turn their attention to Phobos 2 and ″do everything to prevent a repetition of the mistake with the second machine.″

The space research chief spoke to a reporter during a reception at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in honor of Andrei D. Sakharov, the Soviet physicist and human rights activist who is the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

On Tuesday, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Lyakhov and his Afghan crewmate, Ahad Abdul Mohmand, had to postpone landing of their Soyuz TM-5 capsule because a sensor used to orient the craft and a computer malfunctioned.

In addition to the equipment problems, Lyakhov said later he acted improperly during one landing attempt and made the problems worse. The two, who were running low on air and food, returned to Earth safely Wednesday.

NASA, the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was to have helped the Soviets track Phobos 1 next month, but NASA official Raymond J. Amorose said Thursday the Soviets reported they lost contact with the craft.

NASA was also supposed to have worked with Phobos 1 in a joint U.S.-Soviet study of the sun.

The Tass news agency indicated that scientists were in normal contact with Phobos 2 and said it was 11.8 million miles from Earth.

After a 111 million-mile trip, both craft were to have fallen into orbit behind Phobos for a three-month remote study meant to help unlock mysteries of Mars, which some scientists believe may once have hosted life. In April, the craft were to drop out of their orbit and swoop to within 30 yards of the moon’s surface, where they were to release two small landers.

It is the most ambitious of about 18 Soviet and U.S. unmanned missions to study Mars, which, next to Venus, is believed to be most like Earth.