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Second setback for British mission to Mars
( 2003-12-26 16:46) (Agencies)

A British mission trying to find life on Mars suffered a second setback when its space probe again failed to send a signal to confirm it had landed, project organizers said on Friday.

The failure to pick up a signal from Beagle 2 raised fears that the probe, no bigger than an open umbrella, had suffered the same fate as so many craft before it and ended up as scrap metal strewn across the bleak Martian landscape.

A simulation of the Beagle 2 on Mars. The probe has failed to make contact with base after its scheduled landing on the planet. [AFP]
"A search for a Beagle 2 radio signal was carried out (on Thursday evening) without success," the organizers of the mission said in a note posted on their Web Site www.beagle2.com.

Beagle 2's latest failure to make contact capped a dismal Christmas Day for the mission's British scientists, trying to answer a question which has fascinated mankind for years -- "Is there life on Mars?"

They had gathered in London in the early hours of the morning, hoping to hear the probe broadcasting its signature tune -- composed for the occasion by British pop group Blur -- across the vastness of space from the red planet.

But Beagle 2 remained silent and scientists were forced to wait 16 hours for a second chance to detect the probe -- this time using the giant Jodrell Bank telescope in central England.


That bid also failed and the chances of finding the probe in one piece appear to be fading.

Scientists will make their next bid to trace it at 1:15 p.m. EST on Friday, using a mission rocket orbiting the planet. They can try again at regular intervals over the next few weeks but with each failed attempt, hopes for the mission grow slimmer.

The Beagle 2 mission is groundbreaking. It is the first fully European mission to be sent to any planet and has been hailed as a triumph for British ingenuity and European space exploration.

The probe is packed with state-of-the-art scientific instruments designed to scrape, bore and bake dust and rock samples to look for signs of life on the volatile planet, 63 million miles from Earth.

But Mars is a formidable foe with a track record of wrecking pioneering space missions.

Of the previous 11 probes dropped on to the planet's surface, only three have survived and it is estimated that around two in every three Russian and U.S. missions to Mars have been whole or partial failures.

Mission scientists say Beagle 2, which weighs just 75 pounds, might have been blown off course by dust clouds and storms which regularly sweep the surface of Mars.

Alternatively, its antennae might be pointing in the wrong direction for the rocket to pick up its signal.

The worst case scenario is that it disintegrated on landing or burned up as it hurtled toward the planet's surface.

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