The Mars Global Surveyor is in trouble. The little spaceship was launched to Mars on 7 November 1996. On its 10th birthday its guardians - NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Cal Tech - had a busy and frustrating time.
The Surveyor is the oldest of 5 spacecraft sent to Mars. Originally NASA had planned for it to orbit our little red neighbor for two years. NASA has continued to extend those deadlines. In October of this year it again gave the robot spaceship another extension.
The Mars Global Surveyor has stuck around beaming its information back to Earth, "Hello, Houston," longer than any other human artifact sent to Mars. Therefore, we are not surprised that it sent back "more information about Mars than all earlier missions combined." The persevering little ship has been around long enough to see two more orbiters arrive — Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The Jet Propulsion Lab tells me that
Mars Global Surveyor has found many young gullies apparently cut by flowing water, discovered water-related mineral deposits that became a destination for NASA's Opportunity rover, mapped the planet topographically and examined many potential landing sites on Mars.
On 2 November, Surveyor began a normal maneuver to move its solar panels. One of its motors suffered some error and systems ended up putting it in "safe" mode — "... a pre-programmed state of restricted activity in which it awaits instructions from Earth." Only one weak signal has been heard from it since.
Friday, 17 November, NASA was reported by Yahoo News to have enlisted the aid of one of those two, new orbiters, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the most powerful probe ever sent to mars, in the effort to save Surveyor. Reconnaissance has scanned the area where Surveyor may be in an effort to locate it. Since it seems to be waiting to receive a signal telling it to point one of its redundant transmitters toward Earth, finding it could help get it a clear signal. It will be next week before the scans can be read to see if Surveyor has been found.