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UA scientists still await Mars Lander signal


Aaron Farnsworth
Arizona Daily Wildcat

UA planetary sciences professor William V. Boynton hosts a press conference in anticipation of possible communication with the Mars Polar Lander in the Kuiper Space Sciences building Friday. Boynton and other UA professors aided in the construction of different components for the Lander.

By Colin McCullough
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
December 6, 1999
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Three days after their first attempt to communicate with the Mars Polar Lander, UA scientists and researchers are still awaiting a signal from the probe.

Despite several failed attempts to make contact with the lander since it was scheduled to land Friday afternoon, University of Arizona scientists said they have not completely given up hope.

"I'm starting to get concerned to be honest," said Bill Boynton, planetary sciences professor.

"We've been hopeful all along that sooner or later we would get contact with the lander. We haven't given up hope yet. But, I would have to say it doesn't look too good at the moment."

The MPL is an exploratory probe launched by NASA 11 months ago in an effort to gain knowledge of the weather and climate of the red planet.

Scientists last heard from the MPL shortly before it entered Mars' atmosphere Friday at about 7:39 a.m. MST.

NASA first attempted to make contact with the probe six hours later. Despite initial failure, scientists remained optimistic Friday about future opportunities to contact the MPL.

However, as opportunities to make contact with the Mars probe continue to pass with no success, scientists are wondering what happened to the $165 million device.

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., were also worried about the fate of the mission. They held up sheets of paper Friday, spelling out the phrase, "MPL PHONE HOME."

Considering the lack of contact, echoes of the fate of the last Mars probe are surfacing throughout the science community. Some are wondering if the MPL has suffered the same fate as the Mars Climate Orbiter, whose whereabouts are unknown.

"The last probe either burned up or is on its way to Saturn - no one knows for sure," said Samuel Bailey, UA project manager for the Lunar Planetary Laboratory.

Bailey expressed cautious anticipation about the current probe.

"I'm really nervous. I'm really anxious to know whether we arrived in one piece. We know we're on the surface for sure," he said.

The failure to receive a signal can mean anything from a misdirection of an antenna to complete destruction of the MPL. The first dilemma is a correctable problem, but the latter would indicate the probe will never be able to gather any further scientific data.

Scientists are cautioning that regardless of the condition of the MPL, the project has not been a complete failure.

"In the worst case that we never heard from the lander, I would not say that it's been all for naught. People really need to understand these missions are very expensive and are not done just for the sake of science. They're done in part to allow students the opportunity to research," Boynton said. "The taxpayers have already received their money's worth."

While science stands to benefit from any discoveries made by the MPL, the UA has an additional investment at risk.

Arizona's greatest contribution to the MPL - the $4.4 million Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer instrument - was designed to collect soil samples from Mars' surface to test for the presence of water and gases, namely carbon dioxide.

The discovery of these materials could pave the way for future missions to Mars that would involve more than exploratory probes.

"This is all going to lead up to a manned mission to Mars," said Dave Burke, an engineer who helped construct the TEGA device.

Students are also awaiting news of the fate of the MPL.

"If this is a success, that should open up other opportunities for students to conduct research," said Melissa Giovanni, a geology junior who was present at Friday's UA press conference, where images from the MPL were scheduled to be released.

NASA plans to continue its attempts to contact the lander. For the time being, students and faculty must wait to see if a communication link can be established with the probe.

Heather Enos, Lunar Planetary Laboratory business manager, said besides the scientific investment in the mission, personal interests are also at stake.

"People have given lots of nights and weekends for these instruments. I'd like to see them get some payback," she said.

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