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Probe on Mars remains silent

By Associated Press
Published December 27, 2003

LONDON - A third attempt to confirm the survival of the European Mars lander failed Friday when a NASA spacecraft swept over the planned touchdown site on the Red Planet without picking up a signal.

The tiny Beagle 2, designed to search for signs of life on Mars, was to have landed shortly before 10 p.m. EST Wednesday. It was supposed to open its solar panels and call home within a few hours.

"There is no signal from Beagle 2 detected by Mars Odyssey passing over this evening," Peter Barrett of the British government's physics and astronomy research agency said Friday after the NASA craft made its latest pass.

NASA's Mars Odyssey, which has been in orbit since 2001, had the first shot at communicating early on Thursday, but picked up nothing. A powerful radio telescope at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England, also failed to detect Beagle's call sign, despite scanning the Martian surface late Thursday.

The British agency said scientists at Jodrell Bank were listening again Friday evening, when Mars was visible to the radio telescope that recently was fitted with a highly sensitive receiver. The Stanford University radio telescope in California might also be able to listen today, the agency said.

There was no immediate comment from the European Space Agency scientists Friday evening. But they had faced the first two failures with confidence and optimism.

"We are not in any way giving up yet," Colin Pillinger, chief Beagle scientist, said Friday. "We will hang on testing and waiting and checking with Beagle 2 until Mars Express is able to look for us and that won't happen until Jan. 4."

The Mars Express mother ship, which carried Beagle into space and set it loose a week ago, could offer the best chance to get a signal from Beagle.

The mother ship, which went into orbit around Mars on Thursday, is designed to beam back data gathered by Beagle.

Unlike Odyssey and the Jodrell telescope, its communications were specifically designed to hear the probe's transmissions, Pillinger said.

Pillinger said the Odyssey link and communications using Jodrell Bank were untested, but there were 13 more chances for Odyssey to pick up a signal.

After that, the lander will go into an auto transmit mode, sending out a continuous on-off pulse throughout the Martian daylight hours to anyone able to receive it, the agency said.

Possible explanations for Beagle's failure to call home include an off-course landing in an area where communication with Odyssey was difficult, if not impossible. Or transmission from the lander's antenna could be blocked from reaching Odyssey or the ground-based telescopes, the agency said.

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