Lost In Space: 8 Biggest Space Misfires of 2010

/ Source: Space.com

While 2010 saw many historic successes in spaceflight and space science, plenty of things went wrong, too.

For example, several rockets failed to deliver their scientific payloads, Japan's Venus probe Akatsuki missed the planet entirely, and a NASA balloon crashed spectacularly in the Australian desert, partially destroying its telescope payload and smashing into a parked car.

Here's a rundown of 2010's space mishaps and - for one intrepid Mars rover - a stationary fate:

8. Rocket launch failures

2010 saw many failures in the launch and deployment of payloads, and the problems had a real international flavor.

On Dec. 5, for example, an overfueled Russian-built Proton rocket failed to put three new Glonass-M navigation satellites into orbit; they crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. India had troubles of its own, with back-to-back failures of its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, in April and on Christmas Day.

In late October, the European communications satellite Eutelsat W3B launched cleanly and made it to orbit. But the satellites fuel tank developed a sizable leak, and engineers soon declared the craft a total loss.

The United States had some problems, too. In April, the Pentagon lost contact with a hypersonic glider test vehicle shortly after launch. And NASA's prototype solar-sail satellite, NanoSail-D, apparently failed to eject from its mothership satellite as planned in early December.

7. NASA balloon wipes out SUV

In a highly visible blunder, a huge NASA balloon crashed in central Australia before it could lift $2 million telescope to its high-altitude observation station.

On April 28, the 400-foot (121-meter) balloon carrying the Nuclear Compton Telescope, a gamma-ray instrument, blew sideways instead of lifting up. A NASA investigation later cited human complacency as the accident's cause.

The pricey payload dragged along the ground. It disintegrated spectacularly and smashed through a fence, narrowly missing several spectators and heavily damaging a private vehicle parked nearby. A YouTube video of the mishap drew over 160,000 views.

6. Zombie satellite is born

On April 5, the Intelsat Galaxy 15 communications satellite started acting like a juvenile delinquent it stopped responding to commands and started wandering out of its assigned orbit, threatening other satellites. The satellite may have been knocked out of commission by a massive solar eruption, according to its manufacturer, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia.

Strangely, the C-band telecommunications payload aboard the satellite kept working, transmitting signals that threatened to interfere with those of nearby satellites.

However, this story has a happy ending: On Dec. 23, Galaxy 15's onboard battery became drained of all power, and the satellite automatically reset itself as it was designed to do. Zombiesat no more!

5. Mars rover stops roving, goes silent

In January, NASA engineers consigned the Mars rover Spirit to a fate stuck in deep Martian sand.The rover, which had rolled for six years over the Red Planet's surface, became mired in a location called Troy in May 2009. Spirit's controllers prepared the vehicle to weather another harsh Martian winter, but it went into hibernation March 22 and has not responded to signals since.

Mission scientists still hold out hope that Spirit may come back to life in March 2011, when sunlight to power its solar arrays will shine strongest on Mars. But while it remains unresponsive today, Spirit can hardly be considered a failure. The rover and its twin, Opportunity, far outlasted their original 90-day missions. And Opportunity is still going strong.

4. Space station cooling system fails

On July 31, an ammonia coolant pump on the International Space Station failed, knocking out half of the station's cooling system. Astronauts were forced to halt some experiments, and turn off some systems and leave others without backups, to keep the station from overheating.

The problem turned out to be a major technical malfunction, but not a catastrophe. At the time, NASA called it the one of the most challenging repairs for the International Space Station ever attempted.

Astronauts fixed things during three separate spacewalks, removing the faulty pump and replacing it with one of four spares stored on the station's exterior. By Aug.17, the crew had begun reactivating some of the systems and bringing the station back up to normal operations.

3. NASAs space exploration plan meets backlash

In 2010, President Obama's new vision for NASA call2w for the space agency to abandon its moon-oriented Constellation program and focus on getting humans to an asteroid by 2025, and to Mars by the mid-2030s.

The plan also relies on foreign spacecraft to resupply the space station shortly after NASA's space shuttle program retires in 2011. The longer-term goal is to encourage the development of American commercial space capabilities, allowing private companies to eventually shoulder much of the load.

While many have lauded NASA's new direction, others have assailed it on several fronts. Some, for instance, don't want to see Constellation get the ax. In late December, the House of Representatives passed a short-term appropriations bill, H.R. 3082, prohibiting NASA from initiating new programs and requiring the agency to continue funding Constellation.

Some lawmakers are also upset about the looming reliance on foreign spacecraft. And some congressmen as well as seasoned NASA astronauts such as Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell have publicly stated that they have safety concerns about NASA's future reliance on private spaceships.

2. Shuttle Discovery runs into delays

2010 was a frustrating year for the space shuttle Discovery.

It was slated to make its last-ever flight in November, to deliver a storage room and a humanoid robot called Robonaut 2 to the space station. However, engineers discovered cracks in parts of the shuttle's external fuel tank shortly before launch. While they investigated the cause of the cracks, they pushed Discovery's launch back, first to December and then to early next year.

As it stands, Discovery will launch no earlier than Feb. 3, 2011. The latest inspection of the shuttle has revealed a new set of cracks on the external tank which NASA is now analyzing as well, the pace agency announced Thursday (Dec. 30).

1. Japan probe misses Venus entirely

In the saddest space misfire of 2010, the Akatsuki probe failed in its mission to enter Venus orbit. After more than six months of interplanetary travel, the $300 million Japanese spacecraft which was to study Venus' atmosphere and weather in unprecedented detail sailed past the planet on the night of Dec. 6.

Akatsuki's thrusters were supposed to fire for 12 minutes to slow the craft down enough for Venus' gravity to snag it. But an investigation determined that an unexpected pressure drop in the spacecraft's fuel line caused the engines to conk out after only 2.5 minutes.

Akatsuki's failure made Japan 0-for-2 in interplanetary missions; its only previous effort, the Nozomi mission to Mars, was declared a loss in 2003.

Akatsuki is now in orbit around the sun. Mission scientists plan to try another orbital insertion when the probe gets close enough to Venus again likely sometime between November 2016 and January 2017.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall.