The European Mars orbiter, the Express, has failed to contact the British-built Beagle 2 lander, compounding fears the probe, which was to land on Mars last month, is lost.
The Mars Express mother ship is now in the perfect orbit to pick up any signal from the unmanned Beagle 2 probe, but hopes were dashed Wednesday when no transmission was received. The Express has a built-in system designed specifically to communicate with Beagle 2.
The gloom surrounding the European space project contrasts with the thrill at NASA, whose robot, Spirit, has been sending spectacular pictures of Mars since it landed a few days ago. The British-built European probe was to land on Mars on Christmas Day.
Lead scientist Professor Colin Pillinger in north London acknowledged that time is running out, but said he will not give up, yet.
"I think the only thing I can say to the whole team at this stage is play to the final whistle, it only takes a fraction of a second to score a goal," he said. "That is the way we will have to look at this and not give up at this time although I think it really is the moment when we have to start looking at the future as well."
Over the next few days, the Express, which is on Mars's polar orbit, will continue to scan for a signal. On Friday, the orbiter is scheduled to use its onboard camera to search for signs of the Beagle's airbags and parachute. The Express also has a spectrometer that may be used to try to detect traces of ammonia in the atmosphere around the projected landing site. Ammonia was present in the Beagle's airbags.
Beagle 2 is equipped with scientific instruments designed to analyze samples from the Martian surface.