Beagle 2 search: 'The baby is on Mars and the mother is very anxious to get in touch'

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The Independent Online

The world's most powerful radio telescopes were turned towards Mars last night as the search for a signal from Beagle 2 entered its fourth day. With nothing heard from the British probe since its landing on Christmas morning, the previously upbeat scientists at mission control in Leicester admitted: "It's not good news."

The world's most powerful radio telescopes were turned towards Mars last night as the search for a signal from Beagle 2 entered its fourth day. With nothing heard from the British probe since its landing on Christmas morning, the previously upbeat scientists at mission control in Leicester admitted: "It's not good news."

The giant Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire was due to make its third attempt to pick up Beagle 2's signal from 10.56pm last night to 12.16am, joined by a 150ft instrument at Stanford University in California known as the Dish. Scientists were also trying to recruit the help of a third telescope, run by the University of Sydney in Australia.

Professor Colin Pillinger, leader of the Beagle 2 team, refused to give up hope and said the best chance of contact had always lain with the arrival of the mother ship, Mars Express, in orbit around the planet on 4 January. "It is our primary route of communication," he said. "It's the one we spent most of our time over the last five years testing."

And the man in charge of Mars Express, Professor David Southwood of the European Space Agency, remained defiantly hopeful. "The baby, we believe, is down on the surface and the mother is very anxious to get in touch with the baby again."

He added: "Clearly, I would feel so much more confident if we'd got a signal now. But we haven't played all our cards, and we'll then be using a system we absolutely know has been tested and we fully understand."

Beagle 2 was supposed to emit a nine-note tune from the surface to the American spacecraft Mars Odyssey, which has been in orbit around the planet since 2001. The signal was then to be relayed via Nasa's Deep Space network of receivers, taking nine minutes to reach earth.

But when Odyssey flew directly over the Beagle 2 landing site at 6.17am yesterday it did not detect a signal. An attempt to reset the clock on the probe, to prevent wrongly timed transmissions, received no response. British scientists stressed that the link with Odyssey had never been tested and the American craft may have malfunctioned. Odyssey will soon have other cares on its electronic mind: two probes sent by Nasa will attempt a landing next week, even as the ESA's mother ship takes over the search for Beagle 2.

"We're going to keep going until every possibility has been exhausted," said Professor Alan Wells, a leading member of the team at the National Space Centre in Leicester.

The probe's solar panels may have jammed open, blocking the antenna, he said. It was also possible the lid had failed to open. The disc-shaped probe is about the size of a domestic barbecue, weighed less than 70kg at launch, and was built to withstand the 1,600C heat on Mars. Its mission, expected to take 180 days, is to study rocks and dust and to search for methane, a gas seen as a sign of potential life.

The signal that was supposed to herald a successful landing was composed by Alex James and David Rowntree of the band Blur. The latter joined Beagle 2 scientists yesterday to demonstrate his support for the project, along with the singer Myleene Klass, a keen amateur astronomer.

Their presence and the extent to which Beagle 2 has captured the public imagination are testament to the skills of Professor Pillinger, whose efforts to seek sponsorship, publicity and the support of the ESA took six years. With his mutton whiskers and wild hair, the professor became an instant television star over Christmas, giving news cameras a wistful response to the initial silence. "It's like sending somebody a love letter, and you know they got it and you're waiting for a response."

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