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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Damage to Solar Panel Delays Mars Mapping Mission

PASADENA, California -- A damaged solar panel on the $250 million Global Surveyor spacecraft now orbiting Mars has forced NASA officials to delay the start of the probe's key mapping mission by at least a year and added several million dollars to its cost.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Monday they redesigned the mission to avoid further damage to a fragile, 11-foot-long solar panel that threatened to snap off as the craft dipped repeatedly into the planet's unexpectedly dense atmosphere. The latch that holds the solar panel in place was apparently damaged during the probe's launch last November.

After suspending the probe's maneuvers for almost a month to analyze the problem, JPL mission officials in Pasadena and flight engineers at Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver gingerly resumed a braking operation -- called aerobraking -- that will gradually tighten the spacecraft's orbit around Mars in preparation to map the planet.

Mapping is now expected to begin in March 1999 -- a year later than originally planned. The Surveyor probe originally was meant to map the planet for 24 months -- a complete Martian year -- but now the spacecraft could spend as little as nine months devoted to its mapping mission, JPL officials said.

NASA officials said Monday they do not yet know exactly how much of the original mapping mission they will complete, or how much the additional year of mission operations will cost.

"We designed a completely new mission in four weeks,'' Glenn E. Cunningham, Mars Surveyor operations project manager, said Monday. "Clearly, operating for another year in Mars orbit will probably cost several million dollars.''

Mission scientists, however, have taken advantage of the recent delay, and expect the extra time in orbit to offer other opportunities for scientific study of the Red Planet.

The altered mission plan may not seriously affect the quality of the Surveyor's results, JPL officials said.

On Monday, JPL officials released the results of science studies conducted during the month the mission was effectively in a holding pattern around Mars.

New high-resolution panoramas of the planet revealed a landscape washed in waves of dust drifting like new snow. The Surveyor camera caught images of seas of active sand dunes, ancient landslides, patches of sunken, cracked terrain in the Schiaparelli Crater that resemble dry lake beds and layer-cake cliffs 4,000 feet high in the Valles Marineris. "If you did not know this was Mars, you might say it was part of the Rocky Mountains or the Himalayas,'' said Michael Malin, from Malin Space Science Systems Inc. in San Diego, who is the principal investigator in charge of Surveyor's on-board camera.