An artist's concept of NASA's CONTOUR spacecraft. Image Credit: JPL/NASA

What was CONTOUR?

NASA's CONTOUR (COmet Nucleus TOUR) was launched to make a detailed study of the interior of at least two comets. Contact with the spacecraft was lost after an engine burn. An investigation determined that overheating during the burn caused the spacecraft to break apart.

Nation United States of America (USA)
Objective(s) Comet Flyby
Spacecraft CONTOUR
Spacecraft Mass 2,140 pounds (970 kilograms)
Mission Design and Management NASA / APL
Launch Vehicle Delta 7425-9.5 (no. D292)
Launch Date and Time July 3, 2002 / 06:47:41 UT
Launch Site Cape Canaveral, Fla. / SLC-17A
Scientific Instruments 1. Remote Imager/Spectrograph (CRISP)
2. Forward Imager (CFI)
3. Neutral Gas Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS)
4. Dust Analyzer (CIDA)

Key Dates

Jul 3, 2002: Launch

Aug. 15, 2002: Spacecraft lost


CONTOUR was the sixth NASA Discovery-class mission after Mars Pathfinder, NEAR, Lunar Prospector, Stardust and Genesis. It was designed to fly by at least two cometary nuclei with the goal of compiling topographical and compositional maps, sending back imagery, and collecting data on the structure and composition of their comas.

CONTOUR (COmet Nucleus TOUR) was supposed to carry out its primary mission from heliocentric orbit with encounters with Comet 2P/Encke (Nov. 12, 2003), 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 (June 19, 2006) and possibly, 6P/d’Arrest (Aug. 16, 2008).

The spacecraft was successfully launched to a high apogee orbit with a period of five-and-a-half days.

Controllers implemented at least 23 orbital maneuvers during the next 43 days and 25 orbits to position CONTOUR properly for its planned burn to heliocentric orbit on Aug. 15.

On that day, Aug. 15 at 08:49 UT, its solid propellant apogee motor fired as the spacecraft was approaching perigee over the Indian Ocean and out of radio contact.

CONTOUR was never heard from again.

An investigation determined the spacecraft had broken up during its burn. It probably suffered structural failure due to plume heating as its main engine was firing, caused either by problems in the design of the probe or the solid rocket motor itself.

Key Source

Siddiqi, Asif A. Beyond Earth: A Chronicle of Deep Space Exploration, 1958-2016. NASA History Program Office, 2018.

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