Astronomers fear Beagle is trapped in deep crater

The Government would back another mission to Mars if the present Beagle-2 attempt fails, the Science minister, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, said yesterday.

British scientists now think that the missing lander, which entered the planet's atmosphere on Christmas Day but has since sent back no signals, could have fallen into a crater known to be in the middle of the landing zone and may be damaged, or unable to get any sunlight to recharge its batteries.

While the Beagle team continued to puzzle over methods to contact the lander, Lord Sainsbury said: "Long-term, we need to be working with the European Space Agency to ensure that in some form there is a Beagle-3 which takes forwards this technology ... We've always recognised that Beagle-2 was a high-risk project, and we must avoid the temptation in future to only do low-risk projects."

Meanwhile a "tiger team" set up by the project to try to contact the lander has ruled out two possible explanations for the silence of the lander, while adding possibility of the previously unnoticed crater. They have decided that there is no problem with the onboard clock, or with communications methods. Dr Mark Sims, Beagle-2 mission manager, from the University of Leicester, said yesterday: "We are working under the assumption that Beagle-2 is on the surface of Mars and for some reason cannot communicate to us."

The fear is that it could have fallen into a deep crater in the landing zone, which had previously been thought to be a wide, flat area, ideal for the bouncing landing, buffered by gas bags, that was planned. The lander is about the size of a bicycle wheel and weighs 33kg (72lb).

Professor Colin Pillinger, the chief scientist and motivator for Beagle-2, said: "We'd have to be incredibly accurate and incredibly unlucky to go right down this crater, which of course would not be good news. There's going to be [meteor] impact debris around it, which means more rocks. It would certainly make the bouncing process worse. The last thing we wanted was to bounce on slopes or on more rocks."

The crater is about a kilometre (1,100yds) wide and could be hundreds of metres deep. It lies like a bull's-eye at the centre of the 700sq km (435 sq mile) target area on Isidis Planitia, near the Martian equator. It was revealed by close-up pictures taken by the Nasa orbiter Mars Global Surveyor minutes after the British probe was supposed to have landed.

Professor Pillinger said planning a landing on Mars was always a case of "swings and roundabouts".

When Beagle-2 separated from Mars Express on 19 December it was set to become the first European spacecraft to land on another planet. During its 180-day mission it was programmed to test rock, soil and air samples for signs of life.