Mission controllers for NASA's Mars Polar Lander acknowledge that they hold out very little hope of communicating with the spacecraft, but they vow to learn from the experience and continue exploring the Red Planet.
"The Mars Polar Lander flight team played its last ace," said the lander's project manager Richard Cook of JPL following an unsuccessful attempt early Tuesday morning to get the lander to talk to Earth via NASA's currently orbiting Mars Global Surveyor.
Cook said the team will continue trying to communicate with the lander for another two weeks or so, but that expectations for success are remote. Nonetheless, Cook praised the flight team for its heroic attempts to contact the spacecraft, even sleeping on the floors of their offices at times. "We're certainly disappointed, but we're extremely determined to recover from this and go on."
The next communication attempt will take place late Tuesday afternoon, when a 46-meter (about 150-foot) antenna at Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., will listen for a signal from the lander's UHF antenna. Engineers will command the spacecraft to use its medium-gain antenna on Wednesday to begin a scan of the entire sky. During the scan, the antenna is being asked to bend and stretch in every possible direction, in essence "craning its neck" in an effort to be heard by mission controllers on Earth.
Engineers are also considering a plan to command Mars Global Surveyor to fly over the landing site for Mars Polar Lander in coming weeks and take pictures of the area in hopes of spotting the spacecraft.
The Deep Space 2 microprobes that accompanied Mars Polar Lander have also been silent, and project manager Sarah Gavit said she couldn't envision any failure scenario in which the batteries could still hold a charge after four days on Mars.
"Just getting the probes to the launch pad was a measure of success," Gavit said, pointing out that as part of NASA's New Millennium program, the probes were designed to develop and test new technologies in preparation for future missions.
Review boards will be set up within JPL and at NASA to study the cause of the apparent loss and explore ways to prevent a recurrence.
"What we're trying to do is very, very difficult," Cook said. "We hope people, and children in particular, will see from this experience that the mark of a great person, or group of people, is the ability to persevere in the face of adversity."
Mars Polar Lander is part of a series of missions in a long-term program of Mars exploration managed by JPL for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. JPL's industrial partner is Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
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