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Pallab Ghosh reports for BBC News
" It appears the spacecraft has crash landed"
 real 28k

Nasa engineer Tom Rivellini
We will exhaust every possibility
 real 28k

BBC's Leo Enright
"They are hoping for a miracle"
 real 28k

John Pike - FAS
"We've been trying to go to Mars on the cheap"
 real 28k

Monday, 6 December, 1999, 16:03 GMT
Options running out for Mars team
MPL MPL team: Running out of options


The Mars Polar Lander (MPL) is almost certainly lost. Nasa scientists have failed for a sixth time to contact the spacecraft and concede the chances of ever communicating with it again are remote.

"Clearly the team is getting more frustrated, certainly, and more tense about all of this," said MPL project manager Richard Cook. "We're pretty much reaching the point where we've used up our final silver bullets."

The Polar Lander has been out of contact with Earth since it turned its back on home and began the descent on to the Red Planet on Friday. Engineers have been running down a checklist of possible causes for the communication failure.

These run from the possibility that MPL was destroyed as it entered the Martian atmosphere to the theory that it landed in difficult terrain and is incapable of deploying or pointing its antenna.

Miniprobes are missing

"Landing on Mars is very hard - and it's the part where you're landing that's really hard," said Cook. "It doesn't take much to have problems."

Artist drawing of MPL The MPL had a complicated set of landing manoeuvres
Also of concern to Nasa is the lack of contact with the two mini-probes, the $30m Deep Space Two, released from the Polar Lander during entry.

These were designed to collect atmospheric data and analyse soil samples once they had smashed into the planet's surface.

MPL was supposed to have signalled Earth immediately after landing several hundred kilometres from the Martian south pole. When that message failed to arrive, Nasa engineers resorted to a number of pre-planned, fallback procedures.

Automatic broadcast

One of these involved MPL itself automatically switching from its "X-band" transmitter - the one intended for Earth communications - to a non-directional UHF radio on Sunday. The orbiting Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) should have detected this broadcast - but no message was picked up.

Nasa engineers will now get MGS to image the Martian surface where the lander, or possibly its debris, should have come down.

HAVE YOUR SAY Nasa engineer Tom Rivellini says the project team in Pasedena, California, are not yet prepared to abandon the mission.

"They are going to explore every opportunity that there is and only give up hope when they have exhausted every possibility."

Mars 'on the cheap'

The apparent failure of MPL comes just 10 weeks after the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost because of an embarrassing mix-up over metric and English units.

Martian MPL should have landed near the Martian south pole
Already commentators are calling on Nasa to rethink its "cheaper, faster, better" policy of investing in low-cost Mars missions.

"It really looks like these missions haven't had enough money or people working on them so mistakes have crept in that have led to these failures," John Pike, Space Policy Director for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), told the BBC.

"We've been trying to go Mars on the cheap - we've been trying to take a 15-gallon trip with just 10 gallons of gas in the tank."

Are Mars missions a waste of money?

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See also:
06 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars: Mission impossible?
05 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars probe stays silent
04 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Nasa hopeful despite Mars silence
30 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Polar lander ready for Mars
30 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Martian mysteries under microscope
11 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Orbiter loss blamed on 'silly mistakes'

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