Mars probe may have disintegrated

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SCIENTISTS AT the American space agency expect to find out today whether the Mars Polar Lander is lost for good. After four days of hoping - against all the evidence - that it survived a crash-landing at the south pole of the Red Planet, they had one last chance when the planet's orientation might allow communication with the craft.

Two attempts to contact the lander on Sunday failed, and the list of possible explanations has shortened rapidly. It may be that minor damage put the craft to "sleep" after its landing; or a complete disaster may have taken place in which the rockets failed to fire correctly and the craft disintegrated on or near the planet's surface.

If contact is not made soon, the lander's batteries will die, leaving it beyond reach. Nor has anything been heard from the two cricket-ball- sized probes that should have been released during the lander's descent to make radio contact independently. The final attempt at contact was planned for around midnight (0800 GMT today).

Professor Colin Pillinger, of the Open University, said: "Losing one would suggest a hard impact, but losing all three suggests something having gone wrong earlier." He insisted that the mishap should not deter Nasa from its aim of developing "faster, cheaper, better" space missions.

The failure of the probes, which should have hit the ground at 400mph, is a setback, because they were testing a new, cheaper descent method.

t Irish astronomers want security camera films checked for footage of a meteorite that they think fell on County Carlow, in the Irish Republic, nine days ago. The last meteorite fell on Ireland in 1853.