Tim Furniss/LONDON

NASA has lost contact with its Lewis remote-sensing and technology satellite, only four days after a successful launch into initial orbit on 23 August. The craft could have just weeks of life left unless contact is regained.

An unplanned thruster firing sent the spacecraft into a 2rpm rotation, making it impossible for its solar panels to generate electricity and recharge onboard batteries. Unless the spacecraft can be placed into its higher operational orbit, it will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere by the end of September.

The TRW-built Lewis satellite was the first to be launched as part of NASA's Small Spacecraft Technology Initiative (SSTI) to demonstrate new components and materials to help reduce costs and speed development of future commercial missions.

The $63 million Lewis mission was being flown as part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE) programme. The 400kg craft carries two hyperspectral imaging radiometers and a cosmic-background radiation-detection payload. The Lewis had been launched into a 300km, Sun-synchronous orbit by the second Lockheed Martin Launch Vehicle (LMLV) 1 from Vandenberg AFB, California.

The Lewis launch was the first successful flight by the solid-propellant two-stage booster, after the failure of the LMLV1's maiden flight on 15 August, 1996. The vehicle lost control and was destroyed by the range-safety officer at T+153s.

The LMLV 1 is due to launch the NASA Clark satellite, also part of the SSTI and MTPE initiatives, and the Rocsat communications satellite, in 1998.

Source: Flight International