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Still no signal from Mars probe on day three
( 2003-12-28 15:48) (Agencies)

A British mission trying to find life on Mars accepted on Saturday its space probe may have crashed but remained hopeful despite failing for a third day to detect a signal.

An artist's impression shows the Beagle 2 space probe after landing at Isidis Planitia, a large, flat sedimentary basin on Mars. European Space Agency officials said on December 26, 2003 that a third attempt had failed to make contact with the probe that went missing after it was supposed to have landed on Mars on Christmas Day. [Reuters]

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

"There are scenarios where we may have lost Beagle 2 if the landing system didn't work as expected," Professor Alan Wells, one of the project's scientists, told Sky News.

Attempts in the last 24 hours by the Mars Odyssey Orbiter and the Lovell Telescope at Britain's Jodrell Bank Observatory had both failed to detect Beagle 2, scientists said.

Wells said they had now set up two teams, one to keep trying to communicate with the probe and a "Tiger Team" to investigate why it had not responded as expected on Christmas Day.

"We're far from giving up. We've only tried five times so far," he said. "What we're doing is looking at any possibility where Beagle 2 is still functioning and we're not able to communicate with it for some reason."

Of the previous 11 probes dropped on the red 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.

Simulation of the three airbags separating to release the Beagle 2 lander onto the surface of Mars. Experts always sketched the landing as the mission's most daunting challenge.

The US$375 million Beagle 2 is the first fully European mission to be sent to any planet and had been hailed as a triumph for British ingenuity and for European space exploration.

European Space Agency (ESA) officials said on Friday they were still optimistic of finding the probe. There are 13 further scheduled transmissions before it goes into emergency auto-transmit mode.

Beagle 2's failure to make contact soured Christmas and Boxing Day for scientists, who are trying to answer a question which has fascinated mankind for generations -- "Is there life on Mars?"

They gathered in London on Thursday and Friday, hoping to hear the probe broadcasting its signature tune -- composed for the occasion by pop group Blur -- across the 62 million miles from Mars.

ESA officials said that even if Beagle 2 was not found, the Mars Express mother craft that carried the 75-pound probe had successfully been guided on to an orbit around Mars from where it would study the planet for two years.

"For the scientists here the orbiter is the most important part of the mission," said Gerhard Schwehm, an ESA planetary mission official. "The landing probe on Mars is in essence the icing on the cake."

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