The European Space Agency was disappointed the Beagle 2 Mars probe failed to broadcast a signal to confirm its landing on the red planet. But hopes are still up for a second contact chance later on Christmas Day.
A computer generated image shows the Beagle 2 lander separating from its European mother ship earlier this month.
The cliffhanger suspense continued on Christmas morning at the European Space Agency's mission control in Darmstadt, Germany. There, scientists were still awaiting a signal from the Beagle 2 lander, which should have arrived on the Martian surface at 3:52 a.m. after a seven-minute descent.
View into the control room of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Darmstadt, central Germany
Scientists at the European Space Agency in Darmstadt (photo) had hoped the 34-kilogram Beagle 2 would relay a signal -- a short tune penned by the British band Blur especially for the occasion -- two hours after it landed. But NASA's Mars Odyssey probe orbiting the planet failed to make contact with it after passing by the signal range around 6:15 a.m.
"We're not ready to give up"
"We're disappointed, but it's not the end of the world," the Beagle 2's chief architect, Colin Pillinger said, adding that the absence of a signal did not mean the Beagle 2 had been destroyed on entry. "We're not ready to give up, we are just in extra time and we haven't got two penalties yet," he said, using a soccer analogy.
The ESA team will have its next opportunity to make contact with the Beagle 2 at 11:45 p.m. via the Jodrell Bank Telescope in Britain.
"The Beagle 2 is certain to have gone into the atmosphere," said flight director Mike McKay, who also downplayed fears about the lander's fate. "This first indication of no signal is not taken so seriously here at mission control. We're still very optimistic about receiving a signal in the coming days."
After entering the Martian atmosphere Thursday morning, friction was expected to slow the Beagle’s descent from about 20,000 kilometers per hour to 1,600. At that point parachutes should have been deployed, the heat shield ejected and gas-filled airbags should have engulfed the lander, enabling it to repeatedly bounce as high as 30 meters until it had made a complete landing.
ESA scientists have pin-pointed the landing area to a small ellipses measuring 31.8 by 5.1 kilometers located at Isidis Planitia on Mars’ northern hemisphere, a relatively rockless and flat sedimentary basin that provides the most optimal landing conditions.
But it could still be hours before ESA determines whether that difficult landing was made safely.
The Beagle 2 lander is considered to be an incredible engineering feat. No larger than the size of an open umbrella, it was named after the ship that carried Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands. Packed with state of the art scientific instruments and robotic handling equipment, it is meant to scratch and scrape the Martian surface, looking for signs of water and life for 180 days.
A miniature chemical laboratory aboard the unit will scour for biological activity in soil samples extracted from beneath the surface with the help of a burrowing "mole."
Mars Express successfully enters orbit
Despite the uncertainty over Beagle, ESA officials could barely hold back their emotion as they learned this morning that the second half of the mission, the Mars Express orbiter, had successfully entered into orbit around Mars, where it will probe the atmosphere and subsurface of the Red Planet.
"The arrival of Mars Express is a great success for Europe and for the international science community," said David Southwood, the ESA's director of science. "Now, we are just waiting for a signal from Beagle 2 to make this Christmas the best we could hope for."
Southwood said the orbiter would soon be beaming data, including high resolution images of Mars, back to Earth. "With Mars Express, we have a very powerful observatory in orbit around Mars and we look forward to receiving its first results." The orbiters instruments are capable of scanning the planet from the upper atmosphere to several kilometers beneath the Martian surface. "We hope to find critical clues concerning the conditions for life, in particular traces of water," he said.
Milestone in European space exploration
The €300 million mission marks the European Space Agency’s first interplanetary mission. ESA officials hope to use the mission to generate widespread interest in space exploration. The first pictures of Mars from the Beagle are expected to come between Dec. 29-31. Images from the Mars Express orbiter won't come until spring.
"We expect this mission to give us a better understanding of our neighbor planet, of its past and its present," Southwood said, "answering many questions for the science community and probably raising an even greater number of fascinating new ones. I hope we can see it as opening up a new era of European exploration."