Lost Mars lander 'may be confused'

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SCIENTISTS WILL today continue efforts to contact the pounds 105m Mars Polar Lander craft whose fate on the Red Planet has been shrouded in silence.

Mission controllers had hoped the spacecraft - which, if successful, will be only the fourth probe to explore the surface of Mars - would begin transmitting signals within 40 minutes of landing on the planet at 8pm UK time on Friday.

But as the silence continued yesterday, they insisted it would be some time before they began to panic over the missing lander, the sibling of the pounds 80m Mars Climate Orbiter which was lost three months ago due to human error. Richard Cook, the operations manager for the new mission to explore the unexplored south pole, said his mood was upbeat. "I think we have a long way to go before we start being concerned."

Mission managers had warned that contact might not be established on the first, second or third tries. They stressed this did not necessarily mean something catastrophic had happened. It was more likely that the probe was either lost, with its antenna pointing in the wrong direction, or confused by an unfamiliar condition, which would have caused its computer to go into "sleep" mode.

Mr Cook said: "The likelihood of a major problem? We'll just have to wait and get through all these steps. And when we get down to that path, we'll address that problem."

The lander was supposed to cut through Mars' atmosphere, detach from its heat shield, deploy a parachute and fire a dozen thrusters before setting down and beginning to transmit signals back to Earth. But screens at the Nasa Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California, remained blank.

Much is riding on the success of the mission for Nasa after it lost of the Mars Climate Orbiter due to an embarrassing failure to convert data into metric units for a key navigation file.