"Is This the End?"

Bridget Landry - October 15, 1997
Deputy Uplink Systems Engineer
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

    Still no word from the spacecraft. This is getting scary.

The last data we had from the spacecraft came down on September 26. We expected it to wake up the next day about 2 a.m. (Mars local time) to take pictures of the morning sky, but we never heard from it that day. We assumed that the battery had finally died and that the spacecraft had dropped into a contingency mode. However, we heard nothing from the spacecraft in the next few days, so we attempted to command it to turn on the auxiliary transmitter (in case the main one was broken in some way). This appeared to work as we heard a signal from the spacecraft on October 7, starting and stopping exactly when we expected it to. However, the same commands, sent at the same times, failed to produce any result on the succeeding three days and we have had no contact since then.

Theories abound, of course. One is that because the transmitter and the spacecraft have been off for so long, the spacecraft is cooling down to temperatures below where it was tested. This may have changed the wavelengths at which the spacecraft is transmitting and receiving, but much more than anticipated. Another is that the switch between the low-gain and high-gain antennas may be stuck in the high-gain position. Also, if the battery has indeed died, the spacecraft may not be able to track time correctly, (I have this image of the spacecraft clock flashing "12:00" like my VCR does when there's been a power outage...) and so isn't able to point the high-gain antenna properly.

But the fact remains that we haven't had any data from the spacecraft since September, we can't reliably command the spacecraft and we don't know what's wrong. And so, as I said before, it's getting scary. This may be the end of the project. Sad and scary both.

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