How much do we take for granted the ability to remotely navigate a small space craft into orbit about a moving speck of light millions of miles distant in the night sky? Now, the difficulty of the task will be more appreciated. On Thursday, September 23, 1999, at about 2:00 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the Orbiter main engine fired to begin aerobraking and, due to gross navigational error caused by the use of English measurement units by one team and metric units by another, and the failure of NASA quality control to detect that the English data was not converted to metric, the Orbiter plunged about 25km lower into the atmosphere than is safe and broke up. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, CO. the Orbiter's builder, used English measurement in computing trajectory parameters, and JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA., which manages the mission, failed to note the conflicting data.
The Mars Climate Orbiter blasted off from Cape Canaveral on December 11, 1998, and was to make atmospheric and water-resource measurements and be in position to serve as a telemetry relay station for the Mars Polar Lander, which departed from the Cape on January 3, 1999 and is scheduled to arrive at Mars in December. Contingency plans call for Mars Global Surveyor to take on the relay job originally intended for Climate Orbiter. Polar Lander could also transmit directly to Earth through the Deep Space Network.
The Orbiter's Mars Color Imager would have provided the most dramatic pictures, combining horizon-to-horizon images at up to kilometer-scale (half-mile) resolutions, to produce daily global weather images. The camera would also have produced a map showing objects the size of a football field with 40-meter (130-foot) resolution in several colors, providing global views that will build a season-to-season record of the planet's weather.
NASA points out that the loss of Climate Orbiter will in no way affect the mission goals of the approaching Polar Lander, and that a delay in obtaining science has been incurred, not a loss of science.