Volume: 01, Issue: 05
Artist's depiction of the Mars Express space probe.
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Launch of the Mars Express.
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Other Articles in This Issue:
A Martian View of Home
Tsunami Sweeps Atlantic Coast in Asteroid Impact Scenario
Mars Exploration Rover Set to Launch June 8

Mars Express Launched to Explore the Red Planet

The European Mars Express space probe has begun its six-month voyage to Mars, where it will arrive in late December to study the planet’s surface, subsurface structures and atmosphere. In addition to its mission in orbit, the probe will deploy Beagle 2, a small self-sufficient lander that will search for signs of past or present life on the planet. This mission marks the first European Space Agency (ESA) probe to research another planet.

“Europe is on its way to Mars to stake its claim in the most detailed and complete exploration ever done of the Red Planet,” said David Southwood, ESA’s Director of Science. “We can be very proud of this and of the speed with which we have achieved this goal.”

The 1,120 kg probe began its 400 million km journey aboard a Soyuz-Fregat launcher, which lifted off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on June 2. The probe is in contact with ESOC, ESA’s satellite control center, which reports that all on-board systems are operating faultlessly, and the probe has deployed its solar panels and is pointing correctly toward the sun.

Mars Express will perform a maneuver placing it in a Mars-bound trajectory on June 4, leaving the Fregat trailing behind to vanish into space and avoid the risk of crashing into Mars and contaminating the planet. After aligning toward Mars, the probe will shoot through the solar system at a speed of more than 30 km/s. Once all payload operations have been checked, the probe will largely be deactivated and will contact Earth only once per day. In September, any corrections to the probe’s path will be made if it has veered off course.

Systems will be reactivated in November, and on December 20 Mars Express will discharge Beagle 2. The 60 kilogram capsule containing the tiny lander will be released into a collision trajectory with Mars, entering the Martian atmosphere on Christmas day. The unit will be protected by a heat shield and two parachutes, and upon landing near an equatorial region known as Isidis Plantia, three airbags will soften the final impact.

Beagle 2, named after the HMS Beagle, on which Charles Darwin voyaged around the world while developing his evolutionary theory, will explore the Martian surface, gathering geological and mineralogical data that should, for the first time, allow rock samples to be dated with absolute accuracy. The lander’s tools include a grinder, corer and the “mole,” a wire-guided mini-robot able to burrow its way under rocks and dig the ground to a depth of 2 m. Samples will be collected and examined in a GAP automated mini-laboratory equipped with 12 furnaces and a mass spectrometer that will detect possible signs of life and date rock samples.

Meanwhile, the Mars Express orbiter will carry out a detailed investigation of the planet, which scientists hope will provide considerable information about the structure and evolution of Mars. The orbiter will aim its seven on-board instruments at Mars for between a half-hour and an hour per orbit. For the remainder of the time its instruments will be directed toward Earth to relay the information it collects and the data Beagle 2 transmits.

The orbiter mission should last at least one Martian year (687 days), while Beagle 2 is expected to operate on the planet’s surface for 180 days.

Mars Express forms part of an international Mars exploration program, featuring also the U.S. probes Mars Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, the two Mars Exploration Rovers, and the Japanese probe Nozomi. Mars Express may perhaps, within this partnership, relay data from the NASA rovers while Mars Odyssey may, if required, relay data from Beagle 2.

Mars Express, drawing heavily on elements of the Rosetta spacecraft waiting to be launched to a comet next year, paves the way for other ESA-led planetary missions, with Venus Express planned for 2005 and the BepiColombo mission to Mercury at the end of the decade.

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