Space shuttle sends satellite into Earth's orbit European scientists ponder malfunction

August 03, 1992|By New York Times News Service

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- After a one-day delay, astronauts of the space shuttle Atlantis released a European science satellite into orbit yesterday, but the satellite's ultimate success remained in serious question.

The ascent of the five-ton satellite to a higher orbit was interrupted when European flight controllers received signals indicating that the craft was improperly oriented, a situation that threatened to disrupt its control and operations.

The firing of the satellite's steering rockets was immediately halted, leaving it still in the vicinity of the shuttle and more than 50 miles short of its planned destination 322 miles above Earth.

At that altitude, the satellite's instruments were to spend the next nine months conducting 15 experiments in materials processing and the development of organisms under orbital gravity conditions.

The plan then was for another shuttle crew to recover the satellite in April and return the experiments to Earth for analysis.

The satellite, called the European Retrievable Carrier, or Eureca, is the largest craft ever developed by the 13-nation European Space Agency. It was built in Germany at a total cost of more than $400 million.

Officials of the European agency said they were optimistic that in a day or so they would be able to resume the maneuver and power Eureca to its desired orbit.

Eureca's condition and prospects are the subject of intense study at the European control center in Darmstadt, Germany.

Engineers there said they were mystified. Eureca seems to be stable as it slowly drifts away from the shuttle. It appears to be in excellent condition. So there is the possibility that the trouble is more apparent than real, the result of spurious signals or incorrect computer software, rather than flawed hardware that would be uncorrectable.

At a news conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Eckart Graf, the Eureca operations manager, was optimistic. "Although we had a problem, we consider it a glitch, a delay. We are pressing on," he said.

Mr. Graf, who had been consulting by telephone with colleagues in Darmstadt, said the optimism was rooted in the growing belief, after hours of trouble-shooting, that some fairly simple data revisions in Eureca's control computers could resolve the problem.

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