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The disappearance last year of the Mars Global Surveyor may have been caused by human error. NASA says it is now checking to see whether the shutdown was triggered by someone back at mission control sending the craft the wrong message.

Although the space agency is investigating other possibilities, a dodgy software upload has emerged as the prime suspect as NASA embarks on a formal review of the situation.

According to reports, John McNamee, deputy director of solar system exploration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has said that a preliminary investigation already highlighted bad software as a possible cause of the Surveyor's problems. He says a botched upgrade in June 2006 could be to blame.

The upgrade was supposed to improve that craft's flight processors, but instead, it seems to have instructed the craft to turn one of its cooling radiators towards the sun. Over time, this has overheated the battery, forcing the Global Surveyor into safe mode.

If a software glitch is confirmed as the cause of the craft's untimely demise, the investigation will then focus on why the bug was not spotted before the code was dispatched.

The Mars Global Surveyor has been in orbit around the red planet for over a decade, during which time it has sent back over 240,000 images of the planet's surface, contributing hugely to the breadth and depth of our understanding of Mars.

It lost contact with Earth in November 2006. Initially, NASA was hopeful that the craft would quickly come back online, but now Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, says that is unlikely.

"We're declaring it most likely dead. I doubt we will see it again," he told the Associated Press news agency.

He added that the agency would not declare an official cause of failure before the investigation is completed. ®

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