Mars lander misses first chance to communicate
Anxious mission engineers at JPL await word from the spacecraft
December 3, 1999
Web posted at: 4:47 p.m. EST (2147 GMT)
From staff and wire reports
(CNN) -- The Mars Polar Lander failed to make radio contact with
Earth during the first "window of opportunity" on Friday, but NASA
scientists said the probe could still have successfully landed
near the red planet's south pole.
NASA officials had hoped the lander would communicate with the
Earth some 30 minutes after a 3:01 p.m. EST touchdown. But the
$165 million spacecraft, forced to turn its antenna away from the Earth during a harrowing descent, remained silent well past 4 p.m. EST.
Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory stressed that the lack
of communication did not mean the mission was necessarily in
jeopardy. The lander's antennae could require more time to locate
a receiving station on Earth, they said.
A second window for the lander to communicate with Earth should
begin at just after 5 p.m. EST for 40 minutes. There will be several
other opportunities over the weekend as well, NASA officials said.
The Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost in September as it
approached the red planet due to a mathematical error, was to have
served as a radio relay for the lander. The lander will have to
send initial data directly back to Earth.
And NASA scientists plan to use the Mars Global Surveyor, currently orbiting Mars on a mapping mission, to relay data between the lander and Earth.
Radio contact would indicate that the lander successfully
parachuted through the thin martian atmosphere, deployed its
lander legs, then fired its thrusters for a gentle, controlled
descent to the frigid surface.
The lander has been on an 11-month voyage from Earth. Scientists
hope the mission will reveal crucial information about the martian
climate and possibly even signs of water ice buried beneath the
Word from Deep Space 2 probes expected later
The spider-like craft was to set down in a never-explored region so close
to the south pole that the sun will not dip below the horizon
during the mission. Although late spring, the average temperature
there is expected to be minus-73 degrees Fahrenheit (-58 Celsius).
Illustration of a Mars Microprobe (Click image for annotated graphic)
Launched in January, the 3-foot, 600-pound lander would mark
humankind's first return to the red planet since 1996, when the
Mars Pathfinder mission sent its rover crawling across the rocky
Besides the lander, NASA scientists have yet to make contact with
two micro-laboratories that were to have separated from the main
craft and crash to the martian surface about 60 miles (97
km) from the main landing site.
The Deep Space 2 probes, about the size of basketballs, were
dubbed Amundsen and Scott after the first explorers to reach the
South Pole on Earth. They are designed to examine the subsoil for
signs of water.
Search for water drives mission
If the other projects work as plan, the lander's instruments will
measure vapor in the atmosphere, while a claw on the spacecraft
will collect samples to be cooked and analyzed for water.
The primary task of the 90-day mission will be to search for
water, considered an essential prerequisite for life.
Water on Mars could also serve as a vital resource for future
astronauts. Scientists know frozen water exists on the red planet
in its northern ice cap. They believe there may be more
underground, including around the south pole.
Taking pictures, recording sounds
The lander will also send back pictures -- black and white photos
of its landing, followed by color pictures after touchdown.
And for the first time, scientists will receive sounds from
another planet, recorded by the Mars Microphone -- a device the
size of a pack of Post-it notes and weighing less than 2 ounces
It's privately funded and has no scientific goal. The sounds will
be posted on CNN.com and on the Planetary Society's Web site at
Reuters contributed to this report.
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