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Thu, Dec 25, 2003

Beagle 2 Silent After Landing

Speak, Boy, Speak!

After being instructed to land on the surface of Mars Christmas Day, the European Space Agency probe Beagle 2 has been ominously silent. Still, flight controllers say they're optimistic the lander is alive and well and will be able to start transmitting soon.

ESA officials had hoped Beagle 2 would send a signal to be picked up by NASA's Mars Odyssey satellite orbiting overhead. But NASA says it has received no signal from the European lander.

"This is not the end of the story – this was the first opportunity," the European Space Agency's director of science, David Southwood, said at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany. "Getting signals back from Mars is not a straightforward operation. We're sure Beagle is down on the surface, and we just need to hear from it." 

Controllers last heard from Beagle when it rounded the far side of Mars. The signal was received  by the lander's mothership, Mars Express. That was just after 11:00 pm EST Wednesday night.

"At least the initial checks show that the spacecraft is in very good condition," flight director Michael McKay said, to applause from controllers.

"It's a bit disappointing, but it's not the end of the world. Please don't go away from here believing we've lost the spacecraft," Colin Pillinger, lead scientist on the Beagle 2 project, said in London.

The 143-pound lander was to have parachuted through the thin Martian atmosphere. Before touchdown, it was to have deployed airbags that surrounded the vehicle. The airbags would deflate after cushioning Beagle 2's landing and the probe was to then send a few musical notes composed by the British band "Blur" to confirm it had made it to the surface safely.

Mars has proven especially inhospitable to human attempts at exploration. A disappointing majority of the landers sent to Mars have malfunctioned, crashed or been lost.

Closely behind the Mars Express mission are two NASA landers, Spirit and Opportunity. They're scheduled to land on opposite sides of the planet January 3rd and January 24th. In the meantime, NASA's Mars Odyssey will continue listening for signs of life from Beagle 2 as the Mars Express spacecraft descends from its high initial orbit to a point where it can also listen.

FMI: www.esa.int/export/SPECIALS/Mars–Express/index.html

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