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BBC's Toby Murcott
All that was heard was silence
 real 28k

Tuesday, 14 December, 1999, 13:19 GMT
Nasa to scan Mars for lost probe

Is the lander lying crippled on the surface of Mars? Is the lander lying crippled on the surface of Mars?

Nasa scientists will continue the hunt for their missing spacecraft, Mars Polar Lander (MPL).

They will use a powerful camera on board another Mars probe, which is orbiting the Red Planet, to try to locate the lost lander.

Contact with the $165m MPL was severed two weeks ago, just as it entered the Martian atmosphere. So far there have been no clues as to why it suddenly disappeared.

New hope

"We believe it is on the surface of Mars," said project scientist Richard Zurek, speaking at the American Geophysical Union at which the first MPL results should have been announced.

"We're really putting some hope into seeing something on the surface itself."

MPL should have landed at the Martian south pole on 3 December to look for signs of water, and even life. But there has been total silence ever since the final approach.

A number of things could have happened to the probe: it might have burnt up as it entered the Martian atmosphere; it may have landed on a large rock and fallen over; or its antennae may have been damaged preventing it from making radio contact.

MPL is too small to be seen from the orbiting probe so the search will focus on finding the lander's 20-metre-long (65-feet) parachute in a specific area a few kilometres square in area.

'In the realm of possibility'

Finding the missing spacecraft would provide important data for future missions, Dr Zurek said: "If you see the parachute is there, you know it separated from the cruise stage; you know that it deployed the parachute and you also know you are very close to where the lander is."

But he cautioned that pinning down the parachute was no easy task, although within the "realm of possibility".

The best chance for success is if the parachute is spread out over the Martian surface and not covered in dust or balled up. "If it is spread out, we should be able to see it," he said.

The first images are expected as early as Friday but it could take up to three weeks to gather a complete picture of the area.

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See also:
07 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars probe silence signals failure
06 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars: Mission impossible?
11 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Nasa: Lost in space?
08 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars 'wake up call' for Nasa
06 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars 2 - Earth 0
11 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Orbiter loss blamed on 'silly mistakes'

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