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Eve of Mars Arrival
by Stephanie Wong

Mars is getting big... really big.  As ESA's Mars Express spacecraft begins its last week of cruise to the Red Planet, it does its final housekeeping tasks.  On December 19th, six days before Mars Express is to arrive in Martian orbit, it released its tiny payload, the Beagle 2 lander.  Beagle 2 is only 60 kg (~130 lb) and has been piggybacking on the orbiter since launch.  Separated from its mother craft, it is now on a direct trajectory to intercept Isidis Planitia, possibly an ancient impact basin.  It has no rocket to slow it down.  Beagle 2 falls towards its landing site when at the appropriate time, parachutes deploy and the heat shield ejects.  Airbags cushion the impact and the lander bounces and rolls to its final spot.  Unlike the Mars Pathfinder in 1997, the airbags will not deflate but be shot out into the distance, getting out of the lander's way.  Beagle 2 will then unlatch, flipping up its five solar panels up like how a soup can lid is opened.  It will then hunt for life on Mars.

Both Images Credit: All Rights Reserved Beagle 2

Rendering of Isidis Planitia
Isidis Planitia:
Landing Site for Beagle 2.

Meanwhile, the orbiter, Mars Express, makes a series of "orbit burns" in order to set itself into an elliptical polar orbit.  A polar orbit, passing the polar caps on each orbit, allows Mars Express to cover the entire planet in one day.  Every 7-1/2 hours, it can swoop down to a distance of 250 km to get some close glimpses of the planet.
Image Credit: Kees Veenenbos

This dynamic pair of spacecraft is the result of much hard work by the technical and scientific teams across Europe.  Parts of the Mars Express were built in a number of countries and then integrated at Astrium, an aerospace company in France.  The Beagle 2 lander, Britain's contribution to the mission, was also built by Astrium.  After a successful launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazhakstan, the mission team began their even more hectic schedule, training for mission operations and preparing for Mars arrival.  In order to be ready for any problem that could surface, the engineering team at ESOC, Germany, home of the Mars Mission Operations Centre, practiced various scenarios.  Simulation Officer Zeina Mounzer, for each test, planted errors, failures, alarms and anything possibly imaginable to make the engineering team think hard and come about a solution to save the mission.  This way, the team encounters in "real-time" problems that may occur so that they can sort out their strengths, weaknesses and test their preparedness.  The tests increase in difficulty and when they are over, the team knows they are ready as they will ever be.

Credit: ESA/Mars ExpressBut there is light joviality during this busy time.  Mars Express is set to arrive at Mars on Christmas Day and there isn't a better Christmas than seeing their creation beaming back a healthy signal, saying, "we've made it!"  A little plush beagle mascot (with solar flare protective sunglasses, of course!) looks upon the people at mission control, now a family, with fingers crossed for one thing only.  Presents might be replaced with bits of wonderful data and a comfy couch by the warm mantlepiece with a computer console, but the Mars Express team would not have it any other way.  Their baby, the Mars Express, has reached its red Christmas Star, ushering in a new era of planetary exploration.

Imagiverse wishes best of luck to the Mars Express Team and to all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and great joy in the upcoming year.

References: &

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Links of Interest

Mars Express
Beagle 2
European Space Agency
European Space Operations Centre
History of the HMS Beagle
Weather Forecasts for the Mars Landers

- 21 December 2003


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Last Updated:
22 December 2003

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