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Polar Lander's silence deals NASA a setback.



On Dec. 3, Mars Polar Lander The Mars Polar Lander was part of the NASA Mars Surveyor '98 program, which consisted of two spacecraft launched separately, the Mars Climate Orbiter (formerly the Mars Surveyor '98 Orbiter) and the Mars Polar Lander (formerly the Mars Surveyor '98 Lander).  likely became the first spacecraft to land in the harsh polar landscape of another world--but no one knows for sure. Numerous attempts to contact the craft and its two experimental probes have failed. NASA NASA: see National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA
 in full National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Independent U.S.
 scientists now say they have little hope that the $165 million mission will ever phone home.

Coming soon after the demise of Lander's sister craft, the Mars Climate Orbiter The Mars Climate Orbiter (formerly the Mars Surveyor '98 Orbiter) was one of two spacecraft in the Mars Surveyor '98 program, the other being the Mars Polar Lander (formerly the Mars Surveyor '98 Lander).  (SN: 10/9/99, p. 229), this loss appears to have dealt the space agency a critical setback in its decade-long campaign to study the Red Planet and bring back surface samples by 2008.

"These two failures have given us a wake-up call," NASA chief scientist The Chief Scientist is the most senior science position at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Chief Scientist serves as the principal advisor to the NASA Administrator in science issues and as interface to the national and international science community,  Edward J. Weiler told reporters on Dec. 7. "We are going to take a major rethinking of our Mars ... program."

Although he said the program's science goals would remain the same, the agency will reevaluate its current strategy of launching an orbiter and a lander to the Red Planet every 2 years, when Mars and Earth are at their closest. "Maybe we were a little too aggressive," Weiler suggests.

NASA had slated its next Mars mission for launch in 2001, but that could be cancelled or delayed. Weiler says, "Right now, I have no confidence that that will be a successful mission." He noted the need for better information on landing sites and improved communication between Mars missions and Earth, including the capability of craft to report their status while they're descending through the Martian atmosphere.

Because of weight and cost constraints, Lander did not have a transmitter with that capability. That's making it difficult to determine exactly why the craft fell silent. It has also prompted some critics to question the space agency's motto of "faster, better, cheaper."

"People are going to start asking whether or not the pendulum has swung too far to the cheaper," says space-policy analyst Marcia S. Smith of the Congressional Research Service The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a branch of the Library of Congress that provides objective, nonpartisan research, analysis, and information to assist Congress in its legislative, oversight, and representative functions. U.S.  in Washington, D.C.

"Given the resources, we basically did the best we could," says Lander scientist David Crisp of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory “JPL” redirects here. For other uses, see JPL (disambiguation).

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a NASA research center located in the cities of Pasadena and La Cañada Flintridge, near Los Angeles, California, USA.
 (JPL (language) JPL - JAM Programming Language. ) in Pasadena, Calif. He adds that Lander featured the last weather station NASA has planned for Mars. "In my view, it would be foolhardy fool·har·dy  
adj. fool·har·di·er, fool·har·di·est
Unwisely bold or venturesome; rash. See Synonyms at reckless.



[Middle English folhardi, from Old French fol hardi :
 to think that we're going to be able to safely land spacecraft on the face of Mars" without more climate information, Crisp says.

Lander was also to have taken the first close-up images of Martian soil and searched for underground ice deposits. A robot arm would have scooped up samples and dumped them into tiny ovens that can detect water and carbon dioxide carbon dioxide, chemical compound, CO2, a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that is about one and one-half times as dense as air under ordinary conditions of temperature and pressure. .

NASA admitted likely defeat early on Dec. 7, minutes after Mars Global Surveyor The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) was a US spacecraft developed by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and launched November 1996. It began the United States's return to Mars after a 20-year absence. , flying over Lander's presumed resting spot near the Red Planet's south pole South Pole, southern end of the earth's axis, lat. 90° S. It is distinguished from the south magnetic pole. The South Pole was reached by Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, in 1911. See Antarctica. , failed for a second time to detect a signal from the craft's ultra-high-frequency antenna. "The Mars Polar Lander flight team played its last ace," project manager Richard Cook of JPL told reporters.

Combined with multiple attempts from Earth to coax a signal from Lander, these efforts appear to rule out two of the simplest explanations for Lander's silence--that the craft's main antenna was not pointed at Earth and that the craft had placed itself in temporary hibernation.

Lander carried two probes designed to separate from the craft and plunge without a parachute into the Martian surface. JPL scientists now calculate that these experimental devices, which can transmit signals on their own for a few days, are likely to have plowed into a crater. Landing in such rugged terrain could have damaged the transmitters or interfered with communication.

Exploring the climate of the Red Planet's forbidding south pole "was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Crisp.

He told SCIENCE NEWS that he won't give up all hope of hearing from the craft for a few more weeks. According to instructions previously programmed, Lander was to have automatically shifted to a second radio transmitter on Dec. 9. A few days later, it was to have switched to a backup computer. This could make a difference in the craft's ability to contact its home planet, Crisp says.
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Title Annotation:Mars exploration
Author:Cowen, R.
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 11, 1999
Words:683
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