Japan's Nozomi probe, shown in an artist's conception, was intended to study the solar wind that streams past Mars.
updated 12/9/2003 8:51:51 PM ET 2003-12-10T01:51:51

Japan abandoned its troubled mission to Mars on Tuesday after space officials failed in their final effort to put the Nozomi probe back on course to orbit the Red Planet.

The probe, Japan's first interplanetary explorer, had been traveling for five years toward Mars and would have reached the planet next week.

But officials at JAXA, Japan's space agency, said Nozomi was off target and that scientists gave up trying to salvage the mission after an attempt to fire the probe's engines failed because it was short on fuel.

"Our mission to explore Mars is over," JAXA spokesman Junichi Moriuma told The Associated Press. "After today's attempt, almost all of the probe's fuel is gone."

Nozomi _ which means "Hope" _ was to have circled Mars at an average altitude of about 550 miles to determine whether the planet has a magnetic field.

It was also set to 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.

But malfunctions during Nozomi's journey altered its trajectory, putting the dragonfly-shaped, 1,190-pound probe into a course that was too low and raising concerns it might crash into _ and possibly contaminate _ the planet's surface.

More than four years behind schedule, the probe was limping, nearly out of fuel, its electrical and communications equipment badly damaged by solar flares.

In sharp contrast with China's recent launch of its first manned rocket, Japan's space program, which sent a probe into lunar orbit and has another on its way to an asteroid, has suffered a string of setbacks.

Last month, an H-2A rocket carrying a pair of spy satellites strayed off course and was destroyed just minutes after liftoff. Because the H-2A is the workhorse of Japan's space program, a review of the failure is expected to force the postponement of several other missions.

The probe will remain in orbit. Moriuma said scientists will continue to modify Nozomi to carry out alternative missions, including monitoring solar activity, as it carves a wide path round the solar system. One lap is expected to take two years, he added.

Nozomi is part of an international fleet of Mars probes.

NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey are orbiting the planet and sending back images to Earth. Over the next month or so, the European Space Agency's Mars Express and three other spacecraft are expected to land on Mars.

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