LOS ANGELES — NASA has found a missing $159 million spacecraft, thanks to a half-dozen telescope images that confirm the silent probe is in orbit around the sun but possibly broken in pieces.
Astronomers at observatories in Arizona, California, Hawaii and elsewhere have captured pictures of the Contour spacecraft, which has been silent since Thursday when it left Earth orbit to embark on a multiyear mission to visit at least two comets.
“It’s orbiting the sun at this point,” Michael Buckley, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, said Tuesday.
The university built and manages the mission for NASA.
The images confirm Contour fired its solid-propellant rocket motor as planned, but suggest something went awry, since they show two objects moving away from the Earth in tandem at 13,600 mph.
Mission members believe a portion of Contour broke off as it left Earth orbit. They are assuming the octagonal spacecraft remains largely intact, however, and continue scanning for a signal from it.
If no commands are received by the spacecraft for 96 hours, it is programmed to cycle through three of its four on-board antennas and contact Earth.
That process takes 60 hours to run through and could have begun as late as 7:09 p.m. PDT Monday. So far, nothing has been heard.
If the team does not hear from Contour by Thursday, members will make a final effort to listen in December, when the spacecraft’s antennas are in a more favorable orientation.
“We’re obligated to give it this last try,” Contour mission operations manager Mark Holdridge said in a statement. “And who knows, we might get lucky.”
Meanwhile, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is preparing to investigate the mishap, said spokesman Don Savage.
Contour, short for Comet Nucleus Tour, was launched into Earth orbit on July 3. On Thursday, it fired its motor as programmed in a maneuver designed to send it looping around the sun. The mission plan called for Contour to then meet up with comet Encke in 2003, Schwassman-Wachmann 3 in 2006 and perhaps comet d’Arrest in 2008.
Contour was supposed to signal operators at Johns Hopkins about 45 minutes after the rocket burn, but no signal arrived.