No earthly power in the heavens for Nasa

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An experiment to test a new way of generating electricity in space went disastrously wrong yesterday when Nasa lost a pounds 300m satellite which only created enough power to boil a kettle.

The satellite was designed to test the feasibility of generating electricity by towing a 12-milepiece of copper cable, as thick as a bootlace, through the Earth's magnetic field. The principle is the same as conventional generators, which produce power by passing magnets through coils of tightly wound copper wire.

Nasa had almost completed deploying the satellite when the tether linking it to the space shuttle Columbia snapped. The satellite was sent reeling into space at more than 100mph relative to the shuttle.

The tether snapped near its end, with only 33ft left to unreel, but if it had broken nearer the centre, the portion remainingwould have gone out of control and may have even wrapped around the shuttle.

Nasa flight director Chuck Shaw refused to speculate on the cause, but crew member Jeff Hoffman reported that camera views of the tether showed that it may have been charred.

The concept of using space tethers to generate electricity is theoretically simple, but fraught with practical difficulties.

Nasa, together with the Italian Space Agency, had spent more than a decade working on the experiment and, indeed, failed in a previous attempt to deploy the same tether system four years ago.