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Wednesday, 26 January, 2000, 09:13 GMT
Nasa investigates 'Mars peep'

Nasa is still looking for the MPL MPL: Lost on Mars

Mars Polar Lander (MPL) may not be dead after all. Controllers at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) say a very weak signal was detected from the direction of the Red Planet and could be the first sign of life from their lost probe.

Engineers on the project have now been called back for one more look, only a week after officially giving up searching for the craft.

But Richard Cook, the spacecraft's project manager at JPL, warned: "This week's test is a real long-shot, and I wouldn't want to get anyone too excited about it.''

Contact was lost with MPL as it turned on its final approach to enter the Martian atmosphere. That was on 3 December 1999.

Radio antenna

Since then, project scientists have used every trick in the book to find out what happened to the $165m spacecraft.

MPL was due to land near the Martian south pole MPL was due to land near the Martian south pole
They even employed the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor to scan the planet's surface for the entry parachute, the largest object that might have been visible from space.

But the hunt threw up nothing and all hope of ever finding MPL was abandoned on 17 January. But now it seems that a review of information collected by a radio antenna at Stanford University shows a blip in the data that just might have come from MPL on 18 December and 4 January.

Just to be sure, commands ordering the lander to communicate with the 45-metre (150-foot) antenna were beamed toward Mars on Tuesday. Though the new commands directed the spacecraft to send back data on Wednesday, it could take several days before a signal - if one exists - can be interpreted and analysed.

Independent investigation

Investigators are attempting to determine what might have happened to the probe. Possible explanations for its failure to call home are:

  • The three-legged lander burned up on entry
  • It crashed on to the Martian surface and was destroyed
  • It landed but was too damaged to make contact with Earth
  • It landed on the rugged surface and fell over, perhaps down a deep gorge.
An internal JPL board and a team of independent investigators are looking into the failure, as well as the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO). MCO apparently burned up in the atmosphere last September because of a mix-up between English and metric units.

The investigators will also take a hard look at Nasa's entire Mars program. At least some answers are expected by mid-March, about a year before the next Mars orbiter and lander are set to launch.

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See also:
17 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
Nasa ends search for Mars probe
14 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Nasa to scan Mars for lost probe
07 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars probe silence signals failure
06 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars: Mission impossible?
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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