Where Beagle only dares, Nasa arrives in style

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The Independent Online

In California, there was champagne to celebrate another American conquest of the final frontier. In rainy north London, there was only tea and sympathy to be had as British scientists contemplated another day of interplanetary failure.

After a seven-month journey across 300 million miles of nothingness, a six-wheeled Nasa robot the size of a golf buggy heralded a new chapter in man's exploration of the cosmos yesterday when it successfully bounced to a halt from a speed of 12,000mph and sent home startling pictures of Mars.

The images of the red planet transmitted from the Spirit rover at 4.35am GMT were greeted with whoops of jubilation and glasses of bubbly in the control room of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where the $820m (£512m) mission is being co-ordinated by the world's space superpower.

Sean O'Keefe, the leader of the project that Nasa had been looking towards to dispel the gloom created by the Columbia space shuttle disaster which claimed the lives of seven astronauts last February, said: "This is a big night for Nasa ­ we are back. I'm very, very proud of this team and we're on Mars. It's an absolutely incredible accomplishment."

Meanwhile, some 5,400 miles away in a lecture room in Camden, north London, crowded with observers sipping cups of tea and nibbling biscuits, two of Britain's leading space experts put on brave faces as they explained why Beagle 2 ­ the £45m British-built Mars probe which went missing on Christmas Day ­ remains silent.

The team had billed the early hours of yesterday as their best opportunity yet for contacting the 65kg robot because its mother ship, the European Space Agency's Mars Express, would finally be in orbit over the proposed landing area.

But after days' of unabashed optimism, Colin Pillinger, the professor of space science at the Open University who is Beagle 2's lead scientist, said a change in the Mars Express orbit patterns meant the fate of the probe would now not be known before 12.15pm on Wednesday. The British craft, which its designers hope is suffering from a technical glitch rather than lying in pieces after landing on the rocky Martian surface, will be in an optimum position for its emergency radio signals to be picked up by the orbiter.

Speaking at the Open University's headquarters in Camden, Professor Pillinger said his team was far from abandoning hope but admitted the coming days were crucial. He said: "We are clearly moving into the time when we believe it is our best chance. If our best chance doesn't work then we really have to start to believe that time is running out."

Since it failed to send a signal back to Earth after parachuting onto Mars in the early hours of Christmas Day, Beagle 2 has been the subject of a search to pick up its signals by a American Mars orbiter, Odyssey. That search will now be joined by Mars Express.

The British scientists are pinning many of their hopes to the theory that the British probe, likened to a flying barbecue set for its domed shape, is using radio frequencies that Odyssey cannot detect because, unlike with Mars Express, the two craft were not fully tested for compatibility.

Dr Mark Sims, the mission manager from the University of Leicester, said: "It is possible that Beagle is not transmitting on exactly the programmed radio frequencies. There are credible technical scenarios which say that if you don't pick up something with Odyssey, you might pick it up with Mars Express."

The two men magnanimously offered congratulations to the American Mars Exploration Rover (MER) team, wishing them luck with achieving some "fantastic science".

But the contrast between events in Camden and the Nasa control room just north of Los Angeles could not have been more complete or cruel.

Within three hours of executing what Nasa technicians said seemed to have been a flawless landing in its cocoon of inflatable bags designed ­ like Beagle 2 ­ to bounce to a halt on Mars, the Spirit rover had begun sending back the first of 60 to 80 images of the Gusev crater where it touched down.

The probe, which together with its lander weighs eight times more than Beagle 2, was designed to decelerate from 12,000mph to a complete halt in just six minutes using a heat shield, parachute, retro-rockets and the airbags.

The black and white pictures, akin to footage from a high-resolution security camera, showed a flat windswept plain peppered with rocks as well as a bird's eye view of the probe with the solar panels that will power its explorations when fully deployed.

Staff in Pasadena hugged and clapped as the images appeared on the banks of screens. John Callas, the mission science manager, said: "This just keeps getting better and better. The pictures are fantastic."

The safe arrival of Spirit means that Nasa has now created all four of the probes that have survived landing on Mars, a feat so difficult that one scientist last week christened it the death planet. More than 20 other probes from America and other nations, including the Soviet Union, have been destroyed on similar missions.

Spirit is one of two identical wheeled craft sent by Nasa to spend 90 days analysing rocks and soil to chronicle the history of water on the planet.

Despite now being an inhospitably cold and dry planet where night-time temperatures drop to minus 130C, astrophysicists believe it was once dotted with seas and lakes.

Spirit will wait nine days to assess its surroundings using its array of instruments, including a microscope, advanced camera and a rock grinder, before moving off its lander and out into the Gusev crater, a depression the size of Wales south of the Martian equator, which may have once been a lake.

The second probe, Opportunity, which is scheduled to land on 24 January , will land on the Meridiani Planum, an area on the opposite side of Mars from the Gusev crater, thought to be rich in chemicals associated with former water courses.

American scientists hope to use the data to calculate whether there was once life on the planet. But that question, the ultimate mystery for humanity when it comes to Mars, would be answered sooner if only the smaller and cheaper cousin of the Nasa rovers suddenly sprung into action. Beagle 2 has no ability to move about but carries a probe to detect methane, which could prove the existence of microscopic Martians.

MISSIONS TO MARS

1965: The first ever close-up pictures of the red planet were taken by the Nasa space craft Mariner 4, showing a barren wasteland.

1969: Mariner 6 and 7 completed the first dual mission to Mars, taking more than 100 pictures.

1971-72: Mariner 9 became the first craft to orbit Mars, sending back pictures of volcanoes and river-beds.

1973-74: The Russians had an unlucky year, with only one of four probes successfully orbiting the planet.

1976: Nasa's Viking 1 and 2 landers showed no clear evidence of life.

1988: The Soviet Union's Phobos 2 gathered data on the Sun, Mars and the Martian moon, Phobos.

1993: America's Mars Observer fell silent three days before going into orbit and was never heard from again.

1996: Nasa's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter was launched.

1997: Nasa's Mars Pathfinder sent back images suggesting Mars was once warm, wet and similar to Earth.

1999: Nasa lost another space craft, Mars Climate Orbiter, as it arrived.

1999: Nasa reassessed its Mars exploration programme after the $165m Mars Polar Lander failed.

2001: A mission to create the first large-scale geological map of the planet was started by Nasa's Mars Odyssey space craft.

2003: The Japanese Mars orbiter, Nozomi, had to abandon the final leg of a five-and-a-half-year voyage due to electrical faults.

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