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Friday, 17 March, 2000, 13:14 GMT
Nasa pulls back from Mars
MPL Nasa
MPL report will make 'sober reading'
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

The United States is to abandon its ambitious plans to bring back rocks from the surface of Mars before the end of the decade. It is a decision that could set back hopes of an astronaut landing on the Red Planet by many years.

The search for life on the Red Planet will have to slow down

Dr Carl Pilcher
The devastating news was broken to space scientists at this week's annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, by Dr Carl Pilcher. He is the scientist leading Nasa's planetary exploration programme.

"The search for life on the Red Planet will have to slow down until people on Earth have worked out how to land on Mars without crashing," he said.

Last year's double loss of two Mars probes has forced Nasa to take a long hard look at its Mars plans.

A mission to land another robot on Mars next year has effectively been cancelled. It is likely to be replaced with smaller-budget probes that are being hurriedly designed in Houston and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. A Mars Orbiter mission will, however, go ahead.

The law

Before the loss of the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) last year, Nasa's plans called for a sample return mission that would bring back the first Mars rocks to Earth in October 2008. But Dr Pilcher said, that in the light of recent events, the timetable was wildly optimistic: "The jury is out on whether we have the technological capability."

Carl Pilcher Nasa
Carl Pilcher - minus the sweatshirt
Breaking the bad news to space scientists, Dr Pilcher had on a sweatshirt that declared: "Obey Gravity: It's the Law."

Despite the bitter news, he insisted the Mars exploration programme would continue and confirmed that a Mars-orbiting science platform would be launched next year.

He would not discuss the results of the recent study into the loss of the Mars Polar Lander, due to be published at the end of the month, but he said the report's conclusions "make sober reading".

"Our next lander on Mars had better work," he said.

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See also:

06 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Mars: Mission impossible?
08 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Mars 'wake up call' for Nasa
11 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Nasa: Lost in space?
17 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Nasa ends search for Mars probe
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