Mars Global Surveyor Remains Silent, Feared Lost
NASA’s venerable Mars Global Surveyor. Search is on for silent spacecraft. Image
Credit: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste

BOULDER, Colorado - In a high-tech game of celestial hide and seek, a Mars orbiter has tried to image a lost-in-space red planet probe.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been used to attempt locating the space agency's Mars Global Surveyor (MGS)--all in an effort to discern what caused the spacecraft to fall silent several weeks ago.

But after using several MRO instruments, the true whereabouts of MGS and its overall status are still unknown.

"We may have lost a dear old friend and teacher, Mars Global Surveyor," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Explorations Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Meyer took part in an update today from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California with scientists, engineers and managers detailing the status of the MGS search and the probe's past science accomplishments.

The briefing was part-wake, part holding out hope that the errant Mars probe could still be heard from again.

No definitive sighting

The last peep from MGS was on November 5, after notifying ground controllers that it had problems with a balky solar panel. For weeks, attempts to bring the Mars orbiter back on line were met with a silent response from the misbehaving probe.

"In the last two weeks we have not been able to establish communication with the spacecraft in a normal fashion," said Fuk Li, Mars Program Manager at JPL. Over that period of time more than 800 command files were sent to re-establish communication with MGS, but none of them have been successful, he said.

To help in the search for MGS, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was tasked last Friday, and again Monday to try and spot the MGS within a select region of space.

"Our preliminary analysis so far has not yielded any definitive sighting of MGS," Li said.

Rover to lend an ear

A next step is use of the Opportunity Mars rover to listen for a low-power antenna on MGS. Earth controllers will try today and tomorrow to activate an MGS antenna to transmit a signal to Opportunity, now sitting near Victoria Crater within Meridiani Planum.

Whatever the rover picks up--if anything--would be relayed to the Mars Odyssey spacecraft also orbiting the red planet for rebroadcast back to Earth.

Jim Erickson, JPL project manager for MRO said that analysis of all the MRO search imagery is still underway. After studying the results from Opportunity's listen session for MGS, as well as other assessments, a decision on utilizing the MRO again will be weighed, he told SPACE.com.

Tom Thorpe, Project Manager for the MGS at JPL said that the spacecraft's power can vary considerably if one of its solar panels is turned completely away from the Sun - but is also a situation that creates a marginal spacecraft energy situation.

"The power could be supported on only one panel. As long as we're getting enough power the spacecraft is capable of maintaining itself. We have attitude gas, for example, that could keep us in this mode for one or two years. It's anybody's guess as to where that stuck panel is pointed...but we feel that there's a good chance that we're getting enough power to maintain operations," Thorpe told SPACE.com.

Old-timer and good friend

The Mars Global Surveyor is an old-timer. In fact, it is the oldest of five NASA spacecraft currently active at the red planet - three orbiting Mars while the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers continue duties on the planet's surface. Joining in on the exploration is the Mars Express, also circling Mars and is operated by the European Space Agency (ESA).

So far, NASA has not requested any assistance from ESA to help in the quest to bring MGS back to life.

MGS is a long-lived spacecraft that recently celebrated a decade of space exploration after its launch on November 7, 1996. The robust Mars probe has far surpassed its initial warranty of a full martian year (roughly two Earth years), yielding a wealth of discoveries over a span of time. MGS had its mission extended repeatedly, most recently in October of this year.

In total, the Mars Global Surveyor program has been a $377 million investment in opening up the red planet to intensive exploration.

"While we have not exhausted everything that we could do...we believe that the prospect of recovery of MGS is not looking very good at all," JPL's Li explained. "It's been a good friend...and we are certainly feeling we might be losing a good friend from our family here," he added.

Li said that everyone is still holding out some hope, but are fully prepared for the prospect of never being able to talk to the spacecraft again. "But we are also fully prepared to celebrate the fact that it has been a job well done," he added.

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