Researchers may have found Mars Lander
The Mars Polar Lander may no longer be missing.
Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. said yesterday a very weak signal was detected from the direction of Mars and could be the first sign of life from their lost probe.
The craft is equipped with a $4.4 million University of Arizona-built instrument - the Thermal and Evolved Analyzer, which was designed to test the surface of Mars for the presence of water and gases, namely carbon dioxide.
Samuel "Hop" Bailey, UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory project manager, said "the information we got is a real signal on the right frequency band."
One week after officially ending the search for the probe, scientists and researchers have been called back to investigate the signal.
"This week's test is a real long-shot, and I wouldn't want to get anyone too excited about it,'' stated Richard Cook, the spacecraft's project manager at NASA, in a press release.
"It (the signal) could be created by a number of alternative sources than the Mars Polar Lander. It could have been created by a Earth-orbiting satellite, for example," he said.
Contact was lost with the Lander as it turned on its final approach to enter the Martian atmosphere on Dec. 3.
Since losing contact, researchers have searched endlessly for the $165 million Lander.
The orbiting Mars Global Surveyor has even been used to scan the planet's surface for the entry parachute - the only object that might have been visible from space.
Despite their efforts, no sign of the probe was found and the search was officially abandoned on Jan. 17.
In order to confirm this contact, researchers sent commands to the 150 ft. Lander antenna. Though the new orders told the spacecraft to send back data on Wednesday, it could take several days before a signal can be interpreted and analyzed.
"The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was so intrigued by the possible signal, they sent a team of scientists up to Stanford," said Michael Drake, UA planetary sciences department head.
Bailey pointed out that even if contact was made with the Lander, the mission probably could not be salvaged.
"The best thing that could come out of this is that we would know it made it to the surface," Bailey said.
Drake said "There is a real signal," but added his "hopes aren't up."
In an unlikely scenario, Drake said the mission could be salvaged if the Lander did make a safe touchdown on Mars and went into sleep mode.
"This is highly unlikely," he said. "I would give it a 1 percent chance or less."
Investigators are attempting to determine what might have become of the probe. Possible explanations for its failure to call home are: the Lander burned up on entry, it crashed on to the Martian surface and was destroyed; it landed but was too damaged to make contact with Earth; it landed on the rugged surface and fell down a deep gorge.
An internal Jet Propulsion Lab board and a team of independent investigators are looking into the failure, as well as the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter.
The Orbiter apparently burned up in the atmosphere in September because of a mix-up between English and metric measurements.
The investigators will also take a hard look at NASA's entire Mars program. Some answers are expected by mid-March, about a year before the next Mars Orbiter and Lander are set to launch.