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Europeans hear nothing from Mars lander
( 2003-12-26 11:37) (Agencies)

Scientists using a radio telescope failed to determine Thursday night if Europe¡¯s first Mars lander had reached the Red Planet, a government agency said.

The European Mars Express orbiter, shown in this artist's conception, is to survey the Red Planet from 250 miles above the surface. [File photo]
More than 19 hours after the tiny Beagle 2 should have touched down, Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England, began scanning the planet¡¯s surface for a signal ¡ª about as powerful as that of a mobile phone.

Taking advantage of the planet¡¯s position at the end of the Martian night, the researchers trained their powerful telescope on the surface for about two hours starting at 5 p.m. ET.

¡°Jodrell Bank listened for Beagle 2 tonight, but did not detect a transmission,¡± the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council said. Its brief statement only added that the next chance to try to confirm the probe¡¯s arrival would come at 6:15 p.m. Friday (1:15 p.m. ET).

The search continues

Earlier, European space officials cheered as Beagle 2¡¯s experiment-crammed Mars Express mother ship successfully slid into Martian orbit. That was a make-or-break task, because the craft is supposed to beam back the data gathered by the lander from the surface, as well as do its own scanning and mapping.

An artist's conception shows Beagle 2 on the Martian surface with its solar panels unfolded, its robotic arm at the ready and a burrowing device known as "the Mole" deployed.
An artist's conception shows Beagle 2 on the Martian surface with its solar panels unfolded, its robotic arm at the ready and a burrowing device known as "the Mole" deployed.

The $370 million mission aims to search for evidence of life on Mars. Beagle was supposed to have plunged into the Martian atmosphere for 7? minutes and landed on the surface at 9:45 p.m. ET Wednesday, its impact softened by parachutes and gas bags. Once there, its antennas were to flip open and begin transmitting home.

A separate craft already in orbit ¡ª NASA's Mars Odyssey ¡ª couldn¡¯t detect the probe¡¯s signal on its first pass over the landing site.

"It¡¯s a bit disappointing, but it¡¯s not the end of the world. Please don¡¯t go away from here believing we¡¯ve lost the spacecraft," said Colin Pillinger, Beagle 2 project's lead scientist.

Officials said the 143-pound (65-kilogram) Beagle could have landed with its antenna pointing at the wrong angle for Odyssey, or the Martian cold could have distorted the radio frequency it emits.

But space scientists said they had several more chances to hear from it and remained optimistic about Europe¡¯s first mission to search for signs of past or present life on Mars.

Also, the Mars Express, which turned Beagle loose six days earlier, should be able to make contact with the lander in a few days after adjusting its orbit.

Now for the good news

Early Thursday, controllers at the European Space Agency center at Darmstadt clapped and hugged each other when a big screen showed blips indicating they had regained the orbiter¡¯s data feed after it emerged from behind Mars following its first circle.

"At least the initial checks show that the spacecraft is in very good condition," said flight director Michael McKay.

David Southwood, the space agency¡¯s science director, said it was "a wonderful Christmas morning."

The maneuver began with Mars Express firing its main engine to slow it into orbit.

Several hours of tense waiting followed after the craft ceased sending data, having turned its main antenna away from the Earth so it could point its engine in the right direction.

Looking for evidence of life

The focus of the mission ¡ª as with two NASA landers scheduled to arrive next month ¡ª is to search for evidence of life.

The planet is cold and dry now, with ice caps of frozen carbon dioxide, but scientists think that billions of years ago it might have been warmer and had enough water to sustain life.

Beagle 2 is to probe and analyze rocks and soil with its robotic arm. Mars Express, expected to orbit for at least a Martian year, or 687 Earth days, will map the surface with its high-resolution camera and search for water with a powerful radar that can scan several miles underground.

Intricate maneuvers are still ahead. Controllers must change the orbit of Mars Express from a high elliptical one around the equator to a lower polar orbit that will let it cover more of the surface with its instruments.

Still, the Mars Express orbit maneuver was a major success for the agency¡¯s first mission to another planet.

Missions to Mars have often failed. Of 34 unmanned American, Soviet and Russian missions to the planet since 1960, two-thirds have ended with the craft lost.

If it can begin sending data, Beagle 2 would be only the fourth successful landing. Two NASA Viking spacecraft made it in 1976, while NASA¡¯s Mars Pathfinder and its rover vehicle Sojourner reached the surface in 1997.

Several vehicles, most recently NASA¡¯s 1999 Mars Polar Lander, have been lost on landing. The Soviet Mars 3 lander made a soft landing in 1970 but failed after sending data for only 20 seconds.

TIMELINE Missions to Mars

Major Mars missions, 1964 to 2004:

1964 U.S. launches Mariner 3, which fails after liftoff.

1964 U.S. launches Mariner 4. First successful Mars fly-by in July 1965. The craft returns the first pictures of the Martian surface.

1964 Soviets launch Zond 2. Mars fly-by. Contact lost in May 1965.

1969 U.S. launches Mariner 6 and 7. The two spacecraft fly by Mars in July and August 1969 and send back images and data.

1971 Soviets launch Mars 2. Orbiter and lander reach Mars in November 1971. Lander crashes but orbiter sends back images and data.

1971 U.S. launches Mariner 8, which fails during liftoff.

1971 U.S. launches Mariner 9. Orbiter reaches Mars in November 1971, provides global mapping of Martian surface and studies atmosphere.

1973 Soviets launch Mars 5. Orbiter reaches Mars in February 1974 and collects data.

1975 U.S. launches Viking 1 and Viking 2. The two orbiter/lander sets reach Mars in 1976. Orbiters image Martian surface. Landers send back images and take surface samples.

1992 U.S. launches Mars Observer. Contact lost with orbiter in August 1993, three days before scheduled insertion into Martian orbit.

1996 U.S. launches Mars Global Surveyor. Orbiter reaches Mars in September 1997 and maps the planet. Still in operation.

1996 Soviets launch Mars 96, which fails after launch and falls back into Earth's atmosphere.

1996 U.S. launches Mars Pathfinder. Lander and rover arrive on Mars in July 1997, in the most-watched space event ever. Lander sends back thousands of images, and Sojourner rover roams the surface, sending back 550 images.

1998 Japan launches Nozomi. Orbiter suffers glitch in December 1998, forcing circuitous course correction. Mission fails in 2003.

1998 U.S. launches Mars Climate Orbiter. Spacecraft destroyed while entering Martian orbit in September 1999.

1999 U.S. launches Mars Polar Lander. Contact lost with lander during descent in December 1999. Two microprobes "hitchhiking" on lander also fail.

2001 U.S. launches Mars Odyssey. Orbiter reaches Mars in October 2001 to detect water and shallow buried ice and study the environment. It can also act as a communications relay for future Mars landers.

2003 European Space Agency launches Mars Express. Orbiter and lander to arrive at Mars in December 2003.

2003 U.S. launches Mars Expedition Rovers. Spirit and Opportunity rovers due to land on Mars in January 2004.

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