Will quiet Mars lander talk to Dutch radar dishes?
January 31, 2000
Web posted at: 4:30 PM EST (2130 GMT)
From staff and wire reports
DWINGELOO, The Netherlands (CNN) -- Dutch astronomers will use one of the most sensitive radar arrays in the world to listen for signs of life from the lost Mars Polar Lander.
NASA plans to send commands as early as this week telling the missing $165 million spacecraft to communicate with Earth at specific times. Managers of the Dutch array will then scan the heavens for a reply, according to the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy.
The NFRA's Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope is the world's most sensitive array in the radio frequency that the lander is expected to use. The Dutch array comprises 14 antennas that span nearly 2 miles (3 km).
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NASA has cautioned that the odds remain slim that astronomers will make radio contact with the lander, which disappeared on December 3 as it descended toward the surface of the red planet.
The Polar Lander was meant to communicate not with Earth but a satellite that most likely burnt up in the martian atmosphere in September.
'looking for a Christmas tree light on Mars'
"The signal we are looking for is very, very weak, about 1 watt of power -- or like looking for a Christmas tree light on Mars," said Richard Cook, Polar Lander project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
"Because of the weakness of the signal, we want to be absolutely sure we have something, so we will check and double check these data before we will be willing to confirm there is a signal," he said.
The Dutch antennas are capable of detecting the difference between signals from Earth and signals from space. They normally listen for much weaker natural radiation from distant galaxies and stars.
Measurements taken last week were used to make an inventory of Earth signals that could interfere in the search, an NFRA press release said.
Space whisper possibly from Mars
Radio scientists at California's Stanford University are continuing to process data from communications attempts made last week to determine if they have picked up a signal coming from the lander using their 45-meter (150-foot) antenna.
"The signals that were received were like a whisper among a lot of static," NASA's Cook said last week.
"The circumstantial evidence indicates that the signals came from Mars, and if that is the case there is a good chance they came from the Lander," he added.
It will take several days to complete the processing and the researchers do not expect to have confirmation of a signal until some time this week.
Mission controllers two weeks ago officially abandoned their efforts to locate the ill-fated lander. After weeks of fruitless attempts to raise the lander by radio, JPL mission controllers appeared resigned to their second major failure on a Mars mission in three months, following the September loss of the Mars Climate Observer.
But they experienced renewed hopes last week after Stanford scientists reported that a review of data revealed what might have been an extremely weak signal from Mars during tests on December 18 and January 4.
NASA has cautioned that even if the signal was coming from the lander, there was little hope to complete any part of the spacecraft's mission to search for water and ice near the red planet's south pole.
Reuters contributed to this report, written by CNN Interactive Space Writer Richard Stenger.
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