No word yet from British Mars lander Beagle 2

Friday, December 26, 2003

LONDON -- Scientists at a British observatory, listening for a signal from Europe's first Mars lander, failed to determine Thursday if the Beagle 2 arrived on the Red Planet, a government agency said.

More than 19 nail-biting hours after the tiny craft was to have rolled to a stop on the surface of Mars, the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England, took advantage of the planet's position to begin scanning its surface for the Beagle's signal -- about as powerful as that of a mobile phone's.

Between the hours of 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. CST, which would be at the end of the Martian night, they listened for the Beagle's signal.

"Jodrell Bank listened out for Beagle 2 tonight, but did not detect a transmission," the physics and astronomy research agency said in a statement. It said the next chance will come this evening.

Touch down

Earlier, European space officials cheered as Beagle 2's experiment-crammed Mars Express mother ship successfully slid into Martian orbit. That was a make-or-break task since the craft is supposed to beam back the data gathered by the lander from the surface, as well as do its own scanning and mapping.

The $370 million mission aims to search for evidence of life on Mars. Beagle was supposed to have plunged into the Martian atmosphere for 7 1/2 minutes and landed on the surface at 8:45 p.m. Wednesday, its impact softened by parachutes and gas bags. Once there, its antennas were to flip open and begin transmitting home.

A separate craft already in orbit -- the U.S. Mars Odyssey -- couldn't detect the probe's signal on its first pass over the landing site.

"It's a bit disappointing but it's not the end of the world. Please don't go away from here believing we've lost the spacecraft," said Colin Pillinger, Beagle 2 project's lead scientist.

Officials said the 143-pound Beagle could have landed with its antenna pointing at the wrong angle for Odyssey, or the Martian cold could have distorted the radio frequency it emits.

But space scientists said they had several more chances to hear from it and remained optimistic about Europe's first mission to search for signs of past or present life on Mars.

Also, the Mars Express, which turned Beagle loose six days earlier, should be able to make contact with the lander in a few days after adjusting its orbit.

Of 34 unmanned American, Soviet and Russian missions to the planet since 1960, two-thirds have ended with the craft lost.

If it can begin sending data, Beagle 2 would be only the fourth successful landing. Two U.S. Viking spacecraft made it in 1976, while NASA's Mars Pathfinder and its rover vehicle Sojourner reached the surface in 1997.

Several vehicles, most recently NASA's 1999 Mars Polar Lander, have been lost on landing. The Soviet Mars-3 lander made a soft landing in 1970 but failed after sending data for only 20 seconds.

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