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Europe's First Trek to Mars
by Stephanie Wong

The Martian invasion begins in early-June 2003.  But this invasion doesn't involve little green men or a chilling radio broadcast.  Rather, friendly machines from Earth will embark on a scientific endeavour to learn all about the Red Planet -- scanning, probing, measuring and analyzing rocks, terrain and perhaps, Martian life itself.  The first of these missions, Mars Express, is about to do precisely that.

Image credit: ESA

Scheduled for launch on June 2, the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft brings along an unprecedented number of scientific instruments for its small mass.  The spacecraft consists of an orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander to be deployed 5 days prior to Mars arrival.  This will be the first European mission to the Red Planet.

The ESA is comprised of 15 member countries whom work together to build and launch spacecraft, develop technologies and conduct space science research.  In the case of Mars Express, many countries contributed the different parts and instruments.  The spacecraft itself was assembled in Toulouse, France.  Britain provided the Beagle 2 lander.  In March 2003, Mars Express was shipped to Baikonur, Kazakhstan for final testing and launch aboard a Fregat/Soyuz rocket.

Mars Express' orbiter cameras, solar wind detector, spectrometers, radar altimeter, and radio science experiments will contribute to characterizing Mars' global geologic and mineralogical features along with the space environment surrounding the planet.  It will also act as a relay between the lander and Earth, beaming back important scientific data to mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.

Artist's rendition of the Beagle 2 lander fully deployed
Image credit: ESA

The Beagle 2 lander is named after the surveying ship, HMS Beagle, of which naturalist Charles Darwin had sailed upon.  Darwin sailed for five years on the Beagle, documenting the plants and animals found on its journeys through South America, Australia and Africa.  After returning from his expedition, he came up with his theory of natural selection, proposing the principle of evolution, of which is the foundation of biology today.  So, it is fitting for the Mars lander to be named so, as one of its major objectives is to discover whether life existed on Mars.  Arrival at Mars will occur in December 2003.  Beagle 2 will descend into the atmosphere protected by its heatshield. Parachutes will deploy and airbags will cushion the landing onto the plains of Isidis Planitia, a region straddling between the Northern Lowlands and Southern Highlands.  Then, Beagle 2 will open up like a clam, revealing its many solar panels and scientific instruments.

Among the lander's arsenal are stereo cameras, weather gauges, spectrometers, a miniature rock "oven", a robotic arm, and even a mole!  The robotic arm will allow for close-up images of rocks near the lander.  It can look at a sample with a microscope and even chip and drill into a rock to see what's inside.  If a rock is of particular interest, a small sample can be cored out and placed in the Gas Analysis Package (GAP).  The GAP will act as an oven to heat up the sample so that spectrometers can measure what kind of isotopes is emitted from the rock.  A spring-propelled "mole" will be able to traverse short distances on the Martian surface and burrow into the ground to collect rock samples as well.

The invasion of Mars begins soon, but Mars Express isn't the only invader.  Japan's Nozomi orbiter is scheduled to arrive late December 2003.  NASA's two Mars Exploration Rovers will be launching mid- to late-June, setting foot on the planet the following January.  As if three new spacecraft were not enough!  Already at Mars and gathering spectacular data are the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey orbiters.  It will be a busy year at Mars and the ESA will kick off the Mars marathon in a few days.

References: and

Mars Express
Beagle 2
European Space Agency
Mars Exploration Rovers

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- 30 May 2003


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Last Updated:
30 May 2003

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