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2003: Mars space probe disappears
Scientists have failed to make contact with the British-built Mars probe, Beagle 2, which should have landed on the planet early today.

The 35m ($62m) spacecraft was scheduled to touch down at 0254 GMT after its seven-month flight to the Red Planet.

Beagle 2 must recharge its batteries on the day it lands or it will not survive the first night on Mars.

'Not the end of the world'

The Beagle project's lead scientist, Professor Colin Pillinger, told reporters "it's not the end of the world."

"Please don't go away from here believing we've lost the spacecraft," he said. "I'm afraid it's the usual England scenario - we're going to play extra time."

The tiny craft - less than a metre across - travelled to the red planet "piggyback" on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter.

All went well until the probe separated successfully from its mother ship on 19 December to begin its descent to Mars.

Beagle 2's plunge through the planet's thin atmosphere is the most difficult part of the mission.

Missing call sign

Nasa's Mars Odyssey orbiter, which has been circling the planet since 2001, has been unable to pick up Beagle's call sign from the landing site.

A second attempt by the giant Jodrell Bank telescope, in Cheshire, has also been unsuccessful.

If nothing is heard from the Beagle 2 when the Nasa craft makes another pass over the landing site late tomorrow, hopes for its safe arrival will begin to fade.

Celebrity supporters

The Beagle 2 project was marked out from the start by its shoestring budget and tight deadlines.

Professor Pillinger of the Open University first drew the robot on the back of a beer mat in 1997. It has grabbed headlines ever since.

The project has attracted the support of celebrities such as pop group Blur, who composed Beagle 2's nine-note call sign, and Brit-artist Damien Hirst.

The worst case scenario is that the probe has crashed and is lying in fragments strewn across the Martian surface.

The failure of the mission would not be unprecedented. Of more than 30 missions to the Red Planet since the 1960s, most have failed to reach the Martian surface successfully.

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Beagle 2 image
This is what the Beagle 2 might have looked like if it had landed successfully

In Context
The Beagle 2 probe was never heard from again.

An inquiry was set up by the European Space Agency (ESA) to investigate the failure, reporting back in May 2004.

It concluded that there was too little investment at the start of the project, and said poor management was also to blame.

The inquiry concluded that the probe probably never made it to the Martian surface intact.

On 4 January 2004, a Nasa probe successfully landed on Mars and sent back astonishing images of the planet's surface.

The Spirit rover was joined by an identical second probe, named Opportunity, later the same month. Both probes have since found evidence of water vapour and water-influenced geology on Mars.

In November 2004, Colin Pillinger unveiled Beagle 3, a pod using the innovative ultra-light technology used in Beagle 2.

He hopes to persuade the ESA to include it in its 2009 launch of ExoMars, a mission to look for traces of life on the Red Planet.

In December 2005 Professor Pillinger claimed to have found photograhic evidence that Beagle 2 did land on Mars. It seems likely the craft was unable to make contact because onboard instruments were damaged by a harder-than-expected landing.

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