Column One: Spaced-out 'Sleeping Beauty' is dead to the world

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The Independent Online
A MODERN-DAY version of Sleeping Beauty was played out last night in the emptiness of space. Sadly, unlike in the fairytale, there was no happy ending.

Taking the role of the poisoned princess was the Mars Polar Lander, from which nothing has been heard since it crash-landed on Mars's south pole on Friday afternoon. The handsome prince attempting to restore life was the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor satellite.

And rather than a kiss, the mechanism of awakening was a blast of radio waves.

A little indelicate perhaps, but then the Lander is an unlikely heroine. Short, dumpy and heavy - 1m high, 3.5m wide and weighing more than half a ton.

It is probably looking worse for wear, too, after withstanding temperatures up to 1,650C on its entry to the Martian atmosphere, while at the landing site (if it did land, rather than disintegrating or flying past into deep space) it is -58C.

At 6.50pm GMT yesterday scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California were trying to make the best of a 10-minute period during which the Surveyor satellite would be in the right place to contact the Lander, and relay any radio signals from it.

Perhaps it has not been 100 years since the Lander fell quiet, but to people such as David Crisp, a senior project scientist, and Richard Cook, the project manager, it must have felt that way. "Everybody has a belief that we can still get a signal from the spacecraft," said Dr Cook before the attempt. "But as time goes by - I'm not going to tell you different - we're less confident."

The mood over the weekend at JPL was gloomy, unlike the elation in 1997 when the Mars Rover seemed dead, and then sent back stunning pictures. The Polar Lander, by contrast, just seems dead.

The $165m (pounds 100m) craft, which left Earth on 3 January, was meant to bring us for the first time the sounds of a distant planet, via an on- board microphone. It was also designed to search the south pole of Mars for clues about the planet's climate, so scientists might learn whether life ever existed there - and whether human missions could harvest its resources to survive.

Instead, survival questionshave been aimed at Nasa. Both the agency and its critics have pitched all sorts of explanations into the yawning silence.