Fate of British Mars lander in doubt amid radio silence

Probe was supposed to signal ship in orbit

December 26, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - The fate of Britain's first unmanned mission to Mars was in doubt yesterday as the appointed hour for the Beagle II Martian lander to signal from the planet's surface passed in disappointing silence.

The tiny lander, a saucer only 25 inches across, was due to open up like a pocket watch on the Martian surface and issue nine notes composed by the British band Blur to a passing American Mars Odyssey spacecraft for relay back to Earth.

Despite the initial radio silence, the science team directing the Mars landing project in partnership with the European Space Agency and its orbital Mars Express mission planned a second attempt to contact the Beagle II lander from Britain's Jodrell Bank Observatory.

"I'm afraid it's a bit disappointing, but it's not the end of the world," Colin T. Pillinger, the chief scientist who conceived the Beagle II mission, told a news conference in London. "Please don't go away from here believing we've lost the spacecraft."

While the fate of Beagle II was unknown, European space officials at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, rejoiced that its mother ship, the Mars Express, had successfully entered Mars orbit.

"We now have an operational Mars mission," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the agency. Mars Express will use a powerful radar to scan the subterranean features of the Martian surface for signs of life-supporting water.

Two American Mars landers are due for touchdown on the planet in January as the search for signs of life intensifies.

The 140-pound Beagle II lander, about the size of an open umbrella, was designed and built on a shoestring budget by a team of Mars enthusiasts from Britain's major universities working without formal organization or national financing.

Their initiative and pluck have captivated a large following.

Scientists remained hopeful that the lander had survived impact on the surface and would be available to complete its mission: six months of digging and sniffing Martian rocks and soil for signs of life and the biochemical environment that could have supported it.

The lander detached from the Mars Express on Dec. 19. It was scheduled to make a fiery descent to the planet surface as a parachute and three air bags were to be deployed to brake its speed for impact to 40 mph.

The lander has a 5-watt transmitter, enough for broadcasting to the Mars Express. The orbiter fired retro rockets early yesterday and successfully entered Mars orbit, scientists said.

But it will be more challenging to search for Beagle II's tiny signal even with powerful receivers on Earth, as mission scientists hoped to do last night.

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