CONTOUR Spacecraft Pass

The CONTOUR spacecraft (details) made its final potentially visible pass over North America on the evening of August 9, 2002. On August 15 it will enter its escape trajectory and be on course for its rendezvous with Comet Encke on November 12, 2003. I was able to capture this pass through my telescope, but was unable to see it visually. My estimate from the image is that the spacecraft was at about magnitude 7, which is pretty much at the edge of sensitivity for the human eye.

Update, August 29, 2002: the CONTOUR spacecraft was commanded to fire its solid rocket motor as scheduled on August 15, and radio contact was never regained. Several telescopic observations have now identified two objects traveling nearly together close to CONTOUR's planned path (image). The objects are moving apart from each other at about 20 km/h. The evidence strongly suggests that the SRM firing did occur, but something caused the spacecraft to break up very near the end of the burn. Since the actual forces experienced by CONTOUR during this burn were less than those experienced during its launch (and far less than it was designed to handle), it is reasonable to conclude that the failure was caused by some type of explosion. Although it remains remotely possible that enough functionality remains for radio contact to be reestablished, this is very unlikely and the CONTOUR mission will probably not return any further data.


Technical Details

Location: Central Colorado, N38° 47.166'  W105° 29.017'  (Altitude 2767m)
Telescope: Meade LX200, aperture 305mm, focal length 2122mm (f/7)
Camera: SBIG ST8i
Filter: Johnson V
Exposure time: 120 seconds
Start time: UT 2002-08-10 04:46:02 (Aug 9, 2002 10:46:02 PM MDT)

Image size: 765 x 510 pixels (22 x 15 arcmin)
Image scale: 1.75 arcsec/pixel
Orientation: north up, spacecraft traveling west to east (right to left in the image)
Image center: 15h 49m 57s +16d 09m 48s
Image depth (V band): magnitude 17.5
Duration of spacecraft pass: 7 seconds
Estimate of spacecraft brightness: magnitude 7

A WCS calibrated FITS file is available here (342 KB)

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©2002 Chris L Peterson