Brussels, 03 May 2004
The European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to postpone the deployment of the MARSIS radar onboard Mars Express, scheduled for this week, while it awaits the results of ongoing tests to reveal whether the operation will cause damage to the spacecraft.
The main antenna of the MARSIS radar consists of two 20 metre cylindrical booms roughly 2.5 centimetres wide. The booms, currently concertinaed inside boxes attached to ESA's Mars orbiter, are designed to unfurl when their containers are opened and lock in place ten minutes later.
The MARSIS radar itself will study the sub-surface of Mars to a depth of several kilometres by sending radio waves towards the planet, and studying how they are reflected by the material they encounter. In doing so, it is hoped that MARSIS will enable scientists to map the mineralogical composition of Mars, and reveal the presence of any underground water or ice.
Simulations carried out four years ago by the California-based company that built the booms, Astro Aerospace, suggested that the deployment would be smooth, resulting in little or no swinging of the radar arms. However, the company has warned ESA that a new and refined analysis shows the possibility of a 'backlash' occurring before the arms a fully locked into position.
Although ESA says that an ultimately successful deployment is not in question, Mars Express mission managers are eager not to subject the radar booms to undue mechanical stress, and ensure that they do not damage the spacecraft as they deploy.
They will therefore await the results of further tests and simulations being carried out by the MARIS team and their industrial contractors, in order to confirm that deployment will have no impact on the safety of Mars Express itself.
Back on Earth, ESA is celebrating the accession of Luxembourg to its convention, opening the way for the Grand Duchy to become a full Member State by December 2005 at the latest.
'We warmly welcome Luxembourg to the European Space Agency,' said ESA Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain. 'Luxembourg has already acquired space experience through its involvement in Intelsat, Eutelsat, and Eurocontrol, and will reinforce the European dimension of ESA.'