A project spokesman said on Friday that the giant Lovell telescope in west England had not picked up any signals to indicate that a missing British-built spacecraft had landed safely on Mars.

The US space agency NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter flew over Beagle 2's landing site earlier on Christmas Day but failed to detect the expected message- a nine-note tune composed by the British pop group Blur.

The next opportunity will be via Mars Odyssey on Friday at 1815GMT, said project spokesman Peter Barrat.

Beagle 2's mothership, the European Space Agency's orbiter Mars Express, was placed in orbit around Mars at approximately the same time as the lander was to have touched down at 0254 GMT Thursday. Beagle 2 is looking for signs of life on Mars.
  
But Mars Express will need until January 4, after completing a
series of final orbital manoeuvres, before it can be in position to receive any signal from Beagle 2, if the probe is in fact alive and well.

Earlier disappointment

"We're disappointed, but it's not the end of the world," mission head Colin Pillinger told reporters in London earlier in the day.

"Please don't go away from here believing we've lost the spacecraft."

The mission team had been hoping for a call from NASA, whose orbiter Mars Odyssey was available to relay the signal from Beagle.

Simulation of three airbags
separating to release Beagle 2

The Mars Express spacecraft had successfully gone into orbit around Mars.

The Beagle, a British probe the size of an open umbrella, will try to answer a question which has fascinated humankind for centuries - is there life on the Red Planet?

The failed communication with Earth notwithstanding, the probe still faces many potential pitfalls, including huge dust storms sweeping the surface of the volatile planet, 100 million km from earth.

Seeking signs of life

Assuming the mission is successful, Beagle 2 will start work straight away.

It has an estimated maximum operational life of just 180 days before Martian dust and extremes of temperature are expected to put it out of action.

The lander is packed with state of the art scientific instruments that will scrape, bore and bake samples from the surface of Mars, seeking signs of whether the planet could sustain life.

At its heart is a mass spectrometer used to measure the mass and abundance of atoms and molecules on planetary surfaces.

Colin Pillinger, the brain behind the project, says this is the first mission dedicated to looking for life on Mars rather than simply signs that life once existed.

"We would not be doing this if we did not think there was a good chance of success," he said.