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A $125 million spacecraft that was to be NASA's first interplanetary weather satellite was presumed destroyed today after it failed to regain contact with Earth following a critical engine firing to place it in orbit around Mars.

A preliminary analysis shows the Mars Climate Orbiter approached Mars too closely and likely broke into pieces or burned up in the atmosphere, said operations project manager Richard Cook of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The problem likely stemmed from human or software error, not a mechanical problem with the spacecraft, he said.

The orbiter was believed to have come within 37 miles of Mars' surface at about 2 a.m., just as the probe's main engines were firing to put it into orbit. The minimum survival altitude is 53 miles, Cook said.

The orbiter and its companion, the Mars Polar Lander, carried instruments designed to discover the fate of water believed to have once formed rivers or lakes on the planet.

The lander, due to arrive Dec. 3, was supposed to use the orbiter as a communications relay. But the lander also can communicate directly with Earth.

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