Contour, phone home

August 22, 2002

OH WHERE, oh where has the Contour gone, oh where, oh where has it gone?

On its way to a date with a comet, NASA's one-ton spacecraft failed to check in. Not a radio signal. Not a peep, and this after six weeks of ably performing a series of maneuvers -- 23 in all -- in preparation for its big boost from the Earth's orbit to dally with two comets. It's not like spacecraft don't show up missing now and then, or give their handlers the silent treatment or, sadly, explode.

But the scientists and staff at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory have built 60 spacecraft and not one has disappeared in 30 years. They say Contour -- short for Comet Nucleus Tour -- had been performing on schedule, behaving as a well-programmed and disciplined spacecraft should. And then at 5:35 a.m. last Thursday, the hour when the folks on Earth expected to get the OK that its solid-fuel rocket engine had fired -- they heard nothing. An all-points bulletin went out immediately.

Contour's overseers enlisted the help of NASA's Deep Space Network antennae to scan the skies in hopes of picking up the slightest trace of the spacecraft. Alas, not a blip, not a beep. But maybe Contour isn't missing at all.

Who's to say Contour hasn't fallen into deep space sleep? Resting up before its four-year stint chasing down comets to see what they're really made of. Perhaps somebody said something wrong and Contour has responded with the stratospheric equivalent of a hissy fit. Then again, this super-serious spacecraft may have decided to have a little fun. Play hooky. Engage the scientists back home in a celestial game of hide-and-seek.

Imagine that big bundle of scientific nerves taking out on its own. Going for a joyride, whizzing through the great unknown, darting in and out of stars, putting its $159 million mission on hold because ... it could. Comets Encke and Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 can wait. It's time to live a little.

Scientists from the APL lab near Laurel and beyond have refused to believe that Contour is lost -- or worse, has self-destructed. A couple of high-power telescopes on the prowl have spotted two objects in the orbit where Contour is supposed to be. The spacecraft's minders can't say for sure that the objects are remnants of Contour. They're still waiting for a signal.

But do we hear the faraway strains of Frank Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon"?

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