Scientists cling to hope as lost Mars probe stays quiet

Craft could make contact through ship yet to land

December 28, 2003|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Britain's Beagle 2 Mars lander remained silent for a third day yesterday, and scientists now think that their best hope for receiving a signal is the spacecraft's mother ship.

Mars Express, Beagle 2's mother ship produced by the European Space Agency, entered orbit around the Red Planet on Christmas Eve, about the same time that Beagle was scheduled to land on the surface. Controllers must make a complicated series of maneuvers before it will be in the correct orbit to contact the lander.

"We haven't yet played all our cards," said David Southwood, ESA's director of science. "The baby, we believe, is down on the surface, and the mother is very anxious to get in touch."

Mission planners have been using daily passes of NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter over Beagle's 2's Isidis Planitia landing site to try to contact Beagle. British authorities reached an agreement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for use of Odyssey after Mars Express was launched, so the two communications systems have never been tested together, Pillinger said.

The team has used Odyssey to send a series of commands to Beagle ordering it to reset its internal clock and to open its pocket-watch-like pod and extend its antenna - in case one or more of those operations failed after the landing. None of the commands, however, produced a response.

Yesterday, European officials asked NASA engineers to double check Odyssey to ensure it is functioning correctly. The orbiter's communication system was temporarily shut down by a massive solar flare in October.

The orbiter will continue to attempt to contact Beagle on its daily flyovers for at least another 12 days.

The team has also been listening for a signal from Beagle with the 250-foot Jodrell Bank radio telescope and, more recently, with a smaller radio telescope at Stanford University. The telescopes can detect a signal from Beagle but are not equipped to radio any commands to the lander.

Engineers are not "writing off" Beagle, Southwood said, "and I don't think anyone should. We're hanging in there."

Beagle 2 is the first of three landers scheduled to reach Mars within the next month. NASA's Spirit and Opportunity are scheduled to land Jan. 3 and Jan. 24, respectively. The three probes are part of an intensive effort to determine whether life has existed on Mars.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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