Japan’s space agency, hoping to prevent its first interplanetary probe from crashing into Mars, is scrambling to fix an on-board glitch before the spacecraft reaches the planet next month. Launched in 1998, the Nozomi orbiter was sent to study the upper atmosphere of Mars but has been plagued with problems, which persist despite repeated attempts to correct them.
Hajime Hayakawa, the mission’s project manager at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said malfunctions during the trip have altered its originally planned trajectory, causing the craft to carve a path too close to the planet before settling into its orbit.
To ensure against collision, JAXA officials will fire Nozomi’s engines on December 9, fine-tuning the dragonfly-shaped, 541-kilogram (1,190-pound) craft’s route. Before that happens, scientists also want to fix the craft’s malfunctioning electrical circuits, which control the myriad on-board instruments that collect and transmit data.
Nozomi, which means Hope in Japanese, made its final flyby of the Earth in mid-June and is expected to arrive at the red planet on December 14. Designed as an orbiter, Nozomi will circle Mars at an average altitude of about 894 kilometers (554 miles), collecting samples and measuring the composition of the atmosphere. Over two years, it will try to determine whether the red planet has a magnetic field by studying electric fields in the ionosphere, part of the atmosphere where free electrons, or ions, exist. It will also examine the evolving Martian atmosphere’s interaction with the solar wind — a stream of highly charged particles coming from the sun — and offer a close-up examination of the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey are already orbiting the planet and sending back images to Earth. Between December and January, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express and three other spacecraft are expected to land on Mars.