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Silence, but Mars orbiter a success

Drawing of the Mars Express in orbit around the red planet
Drawing of the Mars Express in orbit around the red planet

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CNN's Gaven Morris has more on the Beagle 2 probe, which failed to broadcast a signal to confirm it has landed on the red planet. (December 25)
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ARMSTADT, Germany (Reuters) -- Even though a Mars probe has failed to signal it has landed, scientists at the European Space Agency say the primary mission goal to put a satellite in orbit around Mars was achieved.

Officials at ESA headquarters in Darmstadt remained hopeful that the British probe Beagle 2 that was scheduled to land on Mars on Christmas Day will still send a signal to indicate it has arrived.

But they were stressing that even if Beagle 2 is not found, the Mars Express mothership that brought the 34 kg (75 pound) probe to Mars had successfully been guided on to an orbit around the red planet, where it will study Mars for two years.

The 300 million euro ($375 million) mission has in any event been groundbreaking -- the first fully European mission to any planet and hailed as a triumph for British ingenuity and European space exploration.

"The landing probe on Mars is in essence the icing on the cake," said Gerhard Schwehm, an ESA planetary mission official in Darmstadt. "For the scientists here the orbiter is the most important part of the mission."

After a six-month, 100 million-km (63 million-mile) journey from Earth to look for signs of life on the planet, the Mars Express will circle the planet on an orbit between 250 km and 12,000 km.

It will study the surface of the planet, its geology, its weather, and also analyse the atmosphere and its gravity.

The Mars Express will use special radar that will enable it to scan up to five metres below the surface -- and explore areas beneath the Mars surface where traces of water may be found.

"Mars Express is okay and in a good orbit," said ESA director of technical support Gaele Winters.

"Mars Express has been a great success as it is in a stable and very good orbit. We hope the mission is going to be an even greater success yet," said Germany's Research and Technology Minister Edelgard Bulmahn on Thursday.

Beagle hopes fading

The failure to pick up a signal from Beagle 2 has raised fears that the probe, no bigger than an open umbrella, had met the same fate as so many craft before it and ended its life as scrap metal strewn across the Martian landscape.

Mission scientists say Beagle 2 might have been blown off course by dust clouds and storms which sweep the surface. Alternatively, its antennae might be pointing in the wrong direction for the rocket to pick up its signal.

The worst case scenario is that it disintegrated on landing or burned up as it hurtled towards the planet's surface.

In Darmstadt, scientists were still optimistic. The probe is packed with state-of-the-art scientific instruments designed to scrape, bore and bake dust and rock samples to look for signs of life for six months.

But Mars is a formidable foe. Of the previous 11 probes dropped on to the planet's surface, only three have survived.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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