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No news is bad news from Mars
( 2003-12-26 09:43) (Agencies)

British scientists have failed in their latest attempt to make contact with the Beagle 2 probe which was to have landed on Mars on Christmas Day.

The probe is the first European attempt to land a craft on the Red Planet.

Artist's view of Beagle 2's airbags separating to release the lander on the Martian surface.
More than 19 hours after the tiny craft was to have rolled to a stop on the surface of Mars, the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England, took advantage of the planet's position to begin scanning its surface for the Beagle's signal, The Associated Press reports.

Between the hours of 2200 GMT and 2400 GMT Thursday, at the end of the Martian night, they listened for the Beagle's simple carrier signal, rather than the nine-note tune that would have announced its survival earlier in the day.

Soon after, Britain's physics and astronomy research agency released a statement saying, "Jodrell Bank listened out for Beagle 2 tonight, but did not detect a transmission. The next opportunity will be via Mars Odyssey at 1815 GMT today (Friday)."

An attempt earlier in the day, by the U.S. Mars Odyssey already in orbit, was not able to detect the probe's signal on its first pass over the landing site, AP reports.

Scientists were earlier hopeful the British-built Beagle 2 had landed on Mars, despite being unable to receive a signal to confirm the probe's touchdown.

Landing was supposed to have happened at 02:54 GMT Thursday. It's mission is to see whether there is life on Mars.

Professor Colin Pillinger told a press conference Thursday morning the lack of signal did not necessarily mean failure and offered possible scenarios including:

 The spacecraft landed in the wrong place

 The craft's transmitting antenna landed disoriented and cannot fully open

 There is a communications mis-match between NASA's orbiting Mars Global Surveyor and Beagle 2

 A failure during entry descent damaged the spacecraft.

The European Space Agency mission includes Beagle 2 and the Mars Express mother ship, which will remain in orbit to look for signs of water below and on the Martian surface using ground-penetrating radar, infrared and other instruments.

The mini-lander hitched a six-month ride to the red planet with the Mars Express, which last Friday dispatched Beagle 2 on its way to Isidis Planitia, Martian lowlands in a basin that may have contained water several billion years ago, when the planet was thought to have been warmer and wetter.

For 180 days, mission planners hope, Beagle 2 will look for evidence of past or perhaps current microbial life. It will drill nearby rocks, dig into the soil and sniff the air, looking for organic matter and other life-related chemical compounds like atmospheric methane.

To search for samples, the stationary droid will use camera eyes to guide a robot arm to a suitable rock. It will then drill and retrieve a core sample from the interior of the rock and place it under intense heat in the presence of oxygen.

The chemical cooking should allow Beagle 2 to look for telltale signs of organic compounds. Different carbon-bearing materials burn at different temperatures, according to Beagle 2 scientists.

"There is no hope of finding carbonaceous compounds (associated with primitive, microscopic life) on the surface because it's all been burnt by the sun," Beagle 2 scientist Andre Brack said earlier in a statement. "There's no protective magnetosphere or ozone later in the Martian atmosphere."

Common features

The robot ship, named for the sea vessel that carried famed biologist Charles Darwin around the world in the 19th century, is the first of three visitors that Mars may host over the winter holidays. Two identical NASA mobile landers are expected to arrive weeks apart in January.

The rover twins, named Spirit and Opportunity, will analyze rock and soil samples on the surface, traveling up to 110 yards a day as they look for evidence that liquid water once flowed on Mars.

Despite their differences, the U.S. and European missions have some common features. All will land with a bounce, cushioned by inflatable airbags. Both will use grinders to remove the weathered surface of rocks and expose their pristine interiors.

Just reaching the red planet would be a milestone. Of about 30 attempts to reach Mars, two-thirds have ended in disaster. Of nine attempts to land, only three have succeeded.

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