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Setback for seismic sleuths

Can we ever predict earthquakes? Seismic researchers are spending millions of dollars to get just a few seconds of advance warning of a major earthquake, and the catastrophic shock that hit Java over the weekend illustrates how much could be at stake.

With that background, Russia's launch of the Compass 2 satellite on Saturday promised to open up an avenue of research toward honest-to-goodness earthquake prediction, even though plenty of experts suspect it may be a dead end. The satellite was supposed to observe changes in Earth's magnetic field and determine whether those changes could serve as precursors of seismic events.

Researchers from NASA as well as Russia and China are debating whether such a seismo-magnetic connection exists. Unfortunately, it doesn't look as if Compass 2 will provide any evidence to settle the debate one way or the other. Russian mission controllers say they haven't been able to switch on the satellite's scientific equipment, and there are mounting reports that the loss is irretrievable.

In a classic example of swords being beaten into plowshares for space science, Compass 2 was launched from a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea, atop an intercontinental ballistic missile that was designed for delivering nuclear weapons.

By all accounts, the satellite was put into its proper orbit and was in contact with ground controllers — but something went wrong with the spacecraft's orientation or onboard equipment, preventing the start of science operations. Russia's Interfax news service as well as Itar-Tass passed along reports of the malfunction. The newspaper Kommersant quoted experts as saying Compass 2 would probably never be used for seismic studies (Russian-language report).

On the Hearsat mailing list, a gathering place for satellite radio trackers, veteran listener Bob Christy says he's had indications that Compass 2's science team "considers the situation irretrievable, as far as the science goes, and possibly the satellite itself." The satellite's predecessor, Compass 1, suffered a similar fate back in 2001.

Compass 2 is by no means the first submarine-launched space shot to go wrong. NBC News space analyst James Oberg minced no words in his e-mailed comments:

"This whole project, sub missile and all, is a desperate gambit by a bankrupt missile factory that lost all Russian military contracts a decade ago and has been hemorrhaging its aging workforce ever since — it's called the Makeyev Bureau. They sold Lou Friedman his 'cut-rate' Cosmos 1 launch, and destroyed it — they sold launches to one of my favorite innovative space transportation gimmicks, ESA's 'Demonstrator' inflatable entry vehicle, and lost mission after mission from booster and payload processing errors. These guys are terminal losers."

Even if Compass 2 is lost, research into the seismo-magnetic connection will continue, based on data already gathered by France's Demeter satellite as well as readings that might be made by a future Chinese satellite.