Nervous time as Beagle remains silent

SCIENTISTS were crossing their fingers tonight as they waited for a signal from Britain's Mars probe Beagle 2.The spacecraft, which has travelled 250 million miles to search for signs of life on Mars, failed to make contact with Earth early today.

SCIENTISTS were crossing their fingers tonight as they waited for a signal from Britain's Mars probe Beagle 2.

The spacecraft, which has travelled 250 million miles to search for signs of life on Mars, failed to make contact with Earth early today.

A call-sign from the lander should have been received shortly after 6am.

But the message, in the form of a nine-note tune composed by members of the pop group Blur, never arrived.

The signal should have been relayed to Earth by the Nasa spacecraft, Mars Odyssey, that has been orbiting the planet since 2001.

Another chance to check if the tiny craft has survived will not come until late tonight - between 10pm and 12.30am.

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Then, scientists plan to turn the giant radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire towards Mars.

They hope the telescope will pick up a faint carrier signal, no stronger than that from a mobile phone, direct from Beagle 2's own transmitter.

Unlike the relayed message, which was to contain Beagle 2's first image from Mars, the Jodrell Bank signal would include no data.

The scientists must wait until after 10pm so that the right part of Mars is pointing towards the Earth.

Earlier, members of he Beagle 2 team and their guests heard the frustrating news at the Open University's offices in Camden, north London.

The project's chief scientist, Professor Colin Pillinger, who led an all-night vigil at the centre, told waiting journalists: "I'm afraid 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."

Beagle 2 was meant to have landed more than four hours earlier, at 2.54am. But the scientists had to wait until Mars Odyssey was in position and flying overhead before making contact.

Prof Pillinger said Beagle 2 was programmed to make at least 14 possible transmissions via Odyssey. The next one would not be until tomorrow at about 6pm.

Even if there is no contact via Mars Odyssey, there could still be a slim chance of getting the signal when Beagle 2's Mars Express mother ship starts operating in about 10 days' time. Unlike Odyssey, it is designed to work hand-in-hand with the probe.

Mars Express was today said to be making good progress settling into its Mars orbit.

On Friday, Beagle 2 separated from the orbiter and appeared to be on a perfect course for a Christmas Day landing.

But first it had to endure a perilous descent through the Martian atmosphere, slowing from 12,500mph to 36mph in under eight minutes.

The craft's heat shield, two parachutes, and protective inflatable gas bags all had to work without a hitch.

Beagle 2, weighing less than 70kg and no bigger than a motorbike wheel, was set to be the first European spacecraft to land on another planet.

For 180 days it was to test soil, rock and air samples for signs of past or present life on Mars.

The probe may have landed in the wrong area - blown off course by Martian winds - or its antenna could be pointing the wrong way. Alternatively there may have been a communications breakdown with Mars.

Worse scenarios are that the craft burned up in the atmosphere, or the chutes or gas bags failed.

Most scientists who waited up with Prof Pillinger remained hopeful.

Open University geologist Dr Dave Rothery, who helped in the selection of the landing site, said: "Naturally I am disappointed, but it's early days. It was always on the cards that this might happen.'

He said it was possible Beagle 2 had landed tilted on its side on the edge of a crater, pointing its antenna away from Odyssey.

But TV astronomer Heather Couper could not hide her disappointment. "You have to face the fact that half the probes that we've sent to land on Mars have failed,' she said.

"My gut feeling is not good, but even if it has failed, it has stimulated an incredible interest in space, science and astronomy in the UK. People have taken Beagle to their hearts.'

Blur's bass player Alex James, who was with the scientists, was upbeat.

He said: "It would have been nice if we had heard it had landed but it's far away and very alone. Maybe they're picking the music up on Pluto.

"In a way it's already been a massive success just for free enterprise and British balls and brilliance.'

The £140 million mission began in June when a Russian rocket launched Mars Express into space from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan.

In October the spacecraft's navigation system was temporarily blinded by radiation from a powerful solar flare, but it survived.

A Japanese mission to Mars, Nozomi, had to be abandoned after the probe developed electrical problems, caused by the same solar storm.

Beagle 2 arrived ahead of two golf-cart-sized Nasa rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, due to reach Mars on January 4 and 24.

Both will spend three months carrying out geological surveys, but neither is equipped to search for direct signs of life.

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