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By Greg Clark
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 4, 1997

Multi-billion dollar spacecraft mission delayed

An air-conditioning malfunction in a key instrument aboard the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft has threatened to delay October's scheduled launch of the multibillion-dollar mission.

The malfunction was announced yesterday by NASA and European Space Agency officials, who hastened to add that the launch window, which extends to Nov. 15, can still be met.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is an international effort to send a spacecraft to orbit Saturn and a probe to descend to the surface of its largest moon, Titan. The spacecraft, which is to be launched aboard a U.S. Titan IV rocket, will receive gravity assistance during two passes by Venus, one by Earth and one past Jupiter, during its seven-year voyage to Saturn. The gravity of these assisting planets will essentially catapult the craft faster and further along in its voyage.

The spacecraft payload was loaded on board its launch rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla. when scientists noticed a problem Friday with the air-conditioning system that is cooling the Huygens probe, said Hamid Hassan of the European Space Agency. The probe was built by the European Space Agency to descend through Titan's nitrogen, hydrogen and methane atmosphere to observe activity in the atmosphere and view the surface.

Air from one of the air-conditioning jets was flowing at three times its normal rate, and made a two-inch tear in the insulation material protecting the probe, Hassan said.

Particles of the foam insulation material were blown onto many instrument surfaces, so scientists decided to remove the probe from the Titan rocket for cleaning, inspection and repair, Hassan said.

The rocket must now be removed from the launch pad, and taken into an adjacent facility where the payload will be removed and disassembled, according to Cassini mission director Richard Spehalski.

"We are confident that the damage is localized and reparable," Hassan said. "We hope to be back on line fairly quickly."

Neither Hassan nor Spehalski would comment about how long the repairs would actually take, but said shifts would be working around the clock to minimize the impact on the launch schedule.

If Cassini does not make launch by Nov. 15, it will be delayed at least 13 months until solar system geometry makes another launch possible.

Several University of Arizona scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory play key roles in the mission, including Carolyn Porco, who is head of the Cassini imaging team, and Martin Tomasko, head of the imaging team for the Huygens probe, which will descend to the surface of Titan.

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