Brussels, 11 Jun 2003
All aboard the 'Mars Express'. After a successful lift-off, the European space probe has entered a trajectory taking it all the way to Mars. Estimated arrival? December 2003.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched its first mission to Mars in search of signs of life on the red planet. Strapped to a Russian Soyuz-Fregat rocket, the space probe took off last week from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on its six-month journey to Earth's nearest neighbour.
Mars Express will enter Martian orbit in December. Once in position, it will perform detailed studies of the planet's surface, its subsurface structures and its atmosphere. Around Christmas, it will deploy a landing craft 'Beagle 2' – aptly named after the HMS Beagle on which Charles Darwin voyaged round the world – which will study Mars' surface in detail.
The primary objective will be to find water beneath the rocky surface of this desolate planet. Scientists believe water was once plentiful and may still exist as underground rivers, pools or permafrost. The discovery of water would prove one way or the other that life exists, or once existed, on this austere planet.
A boring job
The probe, weighing just over one tonne, was built for ESA by a European team led by Astrium, which bills itself as Europe's number one space company. Beagle's job will be to gather geological and mineralogical data that should, for the first time, allow rock samples to be accurately dated.
Using boring machines and a small guided burrowing mechanism called the 'mole', samples will be collected from a depth of up to two metres. The samples will be analysed using a mini-laboratory equipped with 12 furnaces and a mass spectrometer – looking for possible signs of life, as well as dating the rock samples.
This mission will take over some of the objectives set for the failed Euro-Russian Mars mission in 1996. Mars Express is part of an international programme, including Russian, US and Japanese contributors. It will stay in the orbit around the planet for one Martian year, equivalent to 687 Earth days – by which time it will have collected valuable data on Earth's sister 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 have achieved this goal."
More information on this subject:
European Space Agency website http://www.esa.int/export/esaCP/index.ht ml
Astrium website http://www.astrium-space.com/corp/index. htm