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BRITISH scientists trying to find evidence of life on Mars have lost their spacecraft - for the second time.

The interplanetary probe mysteriously disappeared yesterday just as it reached its goal at the end of a nine-month journey.

Last night, NASA admitted the Mars Climate Orbiter was almost certainly lost. It had gone into a lower than planned orbit round the red planet.

The news was a disaster for an Oxford University team who had a specially built monitor on board the craft to probe the Mars atmosphere.

The embarrassing bungle happened six years after the same scientists lost an identical monitor, which took 10 years to develop, on a copycat mission. It was never found.

Last night, NASA were frantically trying to re-establish contact with the spaceship and save the Mars mission.

Orbiter had travelled almost 122million miles from Earth, hurtling through space at 12,300mph.

The 1387lb craft should have fired its main engine to slow down to 9840mph and be drawn into an orbit around Mars.

But, after being out of radio contact during most of the 17-minute procedure, NASA controllers could not contact the Orbiter again.

Richard Cook, project manager at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory in California, admitted: "We're not quite sure what's happening. We have a team working on it and we hope to re-establish contact."

The news was a major blow for Professor Fred Taylor of Oxford University, who built the monitor the spacecraft is carrying.

He also built its predecessor on the Mars Observer spacecraft which was lost in 1993. His monitor is designed to measure temperature, dust, water vapour and clouds in the thin Martian atmosphere.

After his first setback, he had to wait until last December before a NASA spacecraft was available.

The Orbiter was to be the first craft ever to orbit Mars, 262 miles above the surface. All others have either crashed or been landed.

During its orbit, it was also due to serve as the communications relay for a second spaceship, Mars Polar Lander, which is due to touch down on December 3.

Both robot probes are part of a pounds 205million mission known as Mars Surveyor '98.

Professor Taylor hoped his mission would give clues to one of the great mysteries of science - was there ever life on Mars?

He planned to try and find out more about possible hidden water reserves such as deep sub-surface ice fields.

Some scientists believe that most of the original water on Mars is still there but hidden away and locked up as ice.

Professor Taylor explained: "This mission has implications for future landings. Humans would need to land where the atmosphere is relatively moist and it is possible to drill for water."

The Orbiter was programmed to work around the planet for 687 days - a full Martian year.

It had been sent out after a successful mission in 1997 which found some evidence that water may have once flowed on Mars surface.

Earlier missions have revealed that Mars is freezing, with temperatures on average minus 60C.

The red planet also has several other remarkable weather features including fogs, clouds and frosts.

However, global dust storms occasionally engulf the planet causing large temperature rises.

Professor Taylor had hoped his monitor would help work out how the planet's climate has evolved.

Previous probes have brought back pictures of water erosion like canyons and signs of shallow seas.

By unravelling the Martian climate, scientists hope to find the key to discovering more about Earth's climatic history.
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Author:Dow, Bob
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Sep 24, 1999
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