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Orbiter may be last chance to rescue Mars probe

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) -- NASA is running out of options for fixing a failed Mars probe that has been snapping detailed pictures of the red planet for a decade, officials said Monday.

Mars Global Surveyor is the oldest of five NASA robotic probes checking the planet for signs that Mars once had water, which many scientists believe to be the key to learning if life ever took root there.

Global Surveyor, which has found evidence of ancient channels and gullies that likely were carved by flowing water, stopped working November 2 after it developed a motor problem while trying to move one of its power-generating solar panels.

After two days of silence, ground control teams received a signal that the spacecraft had put itself into an emergency standby mode. There was no information about what had gone wrong.

Since then, the mission operations team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has run through nearly all its backup plans to try to contact the probe.

This week, engineers are preparing for what may be their last chance to salvage the spacecraft.

NASA plans to use the newly arrived Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, to take a picture of Global Surveyor to see how the failed craft is oriented relative to the sun for power and to Earth for communications.

The picture will be taken Friday when the satellites are about 93 miles apart. MRO's high-powered camera should be able to image details of Global Surveyor as small as about 10 centimeters, said Tom Thorpe, the spacecraft project manager.

"We have a good chance of recovering it still," Thorpe said in an interview.

Flight controllers also plan to try to get Global Surveyor to contact one or both of NASA's roving geology stations, Spirit and Opportunity, which are located on opposite sides of Mars' equator.

The rovers would not be able to relay the spacecraft's science data but engineers would at least get an idea of its general position. The linkup also could show if Global Surveyor still has power.

If the spacecraft has been unable to charge its batteries due to a positioning problem or failed component, it could be drained of power with no hope of resuscitation, Thorpe said.

But if it has power, Thorpe said, "The spacecraft is quite capable of autonomous control even if it doesn't hear from Earth."

Global Surveyor has far surpassed its design lifetime but scientists still had plenty more targets for the probe's camera and science instruments.

Copyright 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

The MRO is scheduled to take a photo of Global Surveyor on Friday, when the two are 93 miles apart.


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