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The BBC's Rachael Payne reports
"No news was not good news"
 real 28k

Project Leader Dr Richard Cook
"Our expectations for the success of the mission are remote"
 real 28k

The BBC's Leo Enrigth
"The communications failure was a huge disappointment to controllers"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 04:55 GMT
Mars 'wake up call' for Nasa
Cook Richard Cook: We'll keep looking

The suspected loss of the Mars Polar Lander spacecraft could result in the postponement or cancellation of the next trip to the Red Planet.

The deputy director of Nasa's Office of Space Sciences, Ed Weiler, described the failure of the $165m spacecraft as "a crushing blow for the Mars programme," that could cause a 2001 Mars launch to be scrapped.

"I am not convinced that we will go forward with 2001. Right now, I have no confidence that it will be a successful mission," he said.

You could say that our expectations for the success of the mission are remote
Richard Cook, MPL project manager
"This has been a wake up call and we are going to respond to it. We are not going to sit back and blandly go forward."

And Nasa chief, Dan Goldin, added: "Clearly something is wrong, and we have to understand it. It is conceivable that we will completely change our approach."

The Mars Polar Lander (MPL) has remained silent despite all efforts to make contact with the probe.

In what scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said was their "last best" opportunity to contact the spacecraft, the Mars Global Surveyor in orbit around the planet tried to contact the lander for six minutes at around 0800GMT on Tuesday.

The satellite was met by a stony silence from the lander.

HAVE YOUR SAY Other possibilities

MPL project manager Richard Cook said Nasa would continue for a "couple of weeks" to listen for a signal from the MPL, and his "team is working on other possibilities". But he said there was no great expectation that any procedure would now work.

The MPL 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.

Artist drawing of MPL An artist's imnpression of the MPL landing safely on Mars
Possible causes for the communication failure run from the theory that the MPL was destroyed as it entered the Martian atmosphere to the possibility that it landed in difficult terrain, toppled over and is incapable of deploying or pointing its antenna.

There has also been no contact with the two mini-probes which comprised the $30m Deep Space Two project. These were released from the Polar Lander during entry.

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

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.

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."

Public support

While the fate of the lander may never be known, the Nasa inquest will focus largely not on what went wrong in space but what mistakes might have been made on Earth in preparing for the flight, Ed Weiler said.

"There will be nothing off the table for investigation."

Asked how he thought the US Congress - which has tried to whittle away at Nasa's budget for years - would react to the failure, Weiler referred to the result of two opinion polls published on Tuesday.

He said a poll in USA Today showed that 73% of the US population said America should continue going to Mars, while an MSNBC poll showed the 53% said Nasa should be spending more money on exploring the Red Planet while only 15% said it should be spending less.

"I consider this a vote of confidence by the American people ... I urge Congress to read these two national polls," Weiler said.

Are Mars missions a waste of money?

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See also:
07 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars probe silence signals failure
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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