A mysterious radio peep -- apparently from the direction of Mars -- has prompted NASA to fire up a new round of tests to see if the wayward Mars Polar Lander might somehow be alive and operating, officials said Tuesday.
"This week's test is a real long shot, and I wouldn't want to get anyone too excited about it," Polar Lander Project Manager Richard Cook said after a fresh set of radio commands was sent to Mars on Tuesday.
NASA scientists last week officially abandoned their efforts to locate the ill-fated $165 million lander, which disappeared on Dec. 3 as it started its descent to the surface of the Red Planet.
After weeks of fruitless attempts to raise the lander by radio, the scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena appeared resigned to their second major failure on a Mars mission in three months following the September loss of the Mars Climate Observer.
But hopes fluttered anew this week after scientists at Stanford University's 150-foot antenna reported that a review of data revealed what might have been an extremely weak signal from Mars during tests on Dec. 18 and Jan. 4.
"The signal that the Stanford team detected is definitely artificial, but there are any one of a number of places it could have originated on or near Earth," Cook said in a statement released by NASA. "Still, we need to conduct this test to rule out the possibility that the signal could be coming from Polar Lander."
The latest set of radio signals was sent to Mars at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. The signals will instruct the craft -- if it is operating -- to send a signal to the antenna at Stanford at about 4 p.m. Eastern time today..
NASA cautioned that even if the signal were coming from the lander, there was "little hope" that any portion of the spacecraft's original scientific mission could be completed. But they could provide clues on why the mission failed.