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Russian Space Probe Crashes Near Coast of Easter Island

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times
MOSCOW

Russia's most ambitious space probe landed with an ignominious 6.7-ton splash in the South Pacific Monday, along with a chunk of the country's battered scientific prestige, after a booster rocket under the Mars-bound craft misfired.

Pieces of the plutonium-laden probe crashed into the ocean 620 miles west of South America near Easter Island, said Alan Hodges, director general of Australia's federal disaster coordination agency. Earlier predictions had suggested that the craft would crash in central Australia, raising fears of nuclear contamination - a danger that had been termed remote.

The failure of the Mars 96 mission was a heartbreaking blow to Russia's financially strained space program, which had spent at least $64 million and eight years preparing for it.

Spurred by new evidence that there may have been life on the Earth's nearest planetary neighbor, 19 European nations and the United States had crammed more than a ton of scientific instruments aboard the craft to photograph Mars, study its atmosphere and sift its reddish soil for signs of water.

A four-stage Proton rocket sent the probe up early Sunday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan - a blastoff that lighted up the surrounding steppe and cheered the 120 invited foreign scientists who had worked with Russia to ready the mission.

By dawn, without any formal announcement, word filtered out to the guests that something had gone wrong.

"This is something you work on for years. Then suddenly, within seconds, you realize it's gone," said Jurgen Rahe, program director for planetary exploration at NASA.

Russian space officials said later that the first three boosters fired properly but the fourth did not, depriving the spacecraft of enough thrust to launch it on its planned 10-month, 48 million-mile journey.

"We lost communication with the probe," Vsevolod P. Latyshev, a spokesman for the flight control center in Moscow, said late Sunday. "The question is where and when it will fall down."

Monday's landing in the Pacific Ocean was greeted with relief. For much of Sunday afternoon, however, U.S. space-tracking technology was focused on an orbit that had the craft headed for Australia, posing a minor risk that the crash could release a small, lethal plutonium cloud.

President Clinton contacted Australian Prime Minister John Howard upon learning of the threat and offered U.S. help in locating and recovering any nuclear material, officials said.

The sudden international drama centering on the skies above Australia was a remarkable coincidence, coming one day before Clinton planned to leave for his first visit to that country.

The president was vacationing in Hawaii on Sunday when news spread of the errant space mission. Clinton's schedule calls for stops in Sydney, Canberra, and Port Douglas this week.

While most of the spacecraft had been expected to burn up before hitting the ground, attention Sunday focused on four plutonium-powered batteries located in two large sections of the probe.

In a "worst-case scenario," the batteries might have released a small cloud of plutonium, said Robert Bell, a senior director for defense policy at the National Security Council.

Scientists said the mission's failure may force Russia to abandon its Mars exploration program. They also said it could tarnish the most promising legacy of the Soviet space era - the commercial sale of Russian rockets to Western companies to launch their satellites.

"All their eggs were in this one basket," said James Oberg, a U.S. engineer who studies the Russian space effort.

"This probe was supposed to show they were still world class players. We have watched them teetering on the brink of disaster for years, reducing their funding and their personnel. Now we're starting to see the pieces breaking."

He and other Western specialists predicted the Russians would probably shelve its Mars program for at least a decade because of a lack of funding.

Russia's last Mars mission failed when Phobos-1 and Phobos-2, launched a few days apart in July 1988, vanished without a trace. Mars 96, the second in the planned series of three missions, was delayed two years by financial problems.