Europe prepares its own Mars mission, as NASA's probe lands on Mars
1 December 1999Just before NASA's Mars Polar Lander bounces to a gentle halt on Mars tomorrow, it will jettison two small probes that will crash into the planet and penetrate its surface. Four years later, in December 2003, another probe will land on the red planet to take a look underground. Called Beagle 2, it will hitch a ride to Mars on Europe's Mars Express mission. NASA's probes will be looking mainly for water and ice, but Beagle 2 will also be searching for the signs of life.
The European Space Agency gave final approval for Beagle 2 to fly on Mars Express at a meeting of its Science Programme Committee (SPC) last month. The UK team that is building the lander convinced the SPC that technical and engineering progress is on target for launch in June 2003. The SPC also accepted that Professor Colin Pillinger, the principal investigator from the Open University, has a viable plan for raising enough public and private finance to pay for Beagle. "We can now go full steam ahead and get up to speed with everybody else on the mission," says Pillinger.
Beagle 2 will look for signs of life below the Martian surface because any that once existed above ground will have been "burnt by the Sun", says Andre Brack, chairman of a group of scientists interested in using Beagle's results. Beagle 2 will have a robotic arm on which will be mounted a drill and a grinder to remove the outer weathered rind of rocks and expose the pristine interior for analysis. The arm will also carry a "mole" which will burrow down through the soil to pick up samples in its "mouth" from depths of about a metre. All rock and soil samples will be subjected to chemical analysis to determine their type, origins and whether they harbour signs of extinct life. Beagle will also look for evidence of existing life in the atmosphere.
Mars Express helps make up for the loss of NASA's Climate Orbiter
Mars Polar Lander was to have relayed the data it has gathered back to Earth via Mars Climate Orbiter. But the loss of that spacecraft in September forced a change of plan and the link in the data chain will now be Mars Global Surveyor, which was already in orbit around the red planet. Beagle 2 will probably make similar use of Mars Express, which will be orbiting around the Martian poles while seven instruments on board make remote observations. At its meeting last month, ESA's SPC approved changes to two of the orbiting instruments. SPICAM, an instrument to measure the spatial variation in composition of the atmosphere, will now be able to look at the atmosphere in the infrared as well as the ultraviolet. "This will enable SPICAM to map the water content of the atmosphere and take over some of the objectives that were lost with Mars Climate Observer," says Agustin Chicarro, Mars Express project scientist at ESA's technical centre, ESTEC in the Netherlands. "Water vapour is the most important gas for picturing the conditions for life on Mars, now and in the past. At present, it enters the atmosphere when the northern icy polar cap warms up each summer. But there are huge variations from one year to the next that are not at all understood, and require constant monitoring from space missions," says Jean-Loup Bertaux, principal investigator for SPICAM from the Service d'Aeronomie du CNRS, Verrieres-le-Buisson, France.
An up-grade to the High Resolution Stereoscopic Camera (HRSC) was also approved. "The HRSC will still map the whole surface of Mars with 10-20m resolution. But an additional super resolution channel will now allow specific areas of interest to be mapped down to a resolution of 2m. We will just be able to pick out Beagle 2 on the surface," says Gerhard Neukum, HRSC principal investigator from the Institut fur Weltraumsensorik und Planetenerkundung in Berlin.
For further information contact:
Professor Colin Pillinger,
Planetary Science research Institute,
Open University, UK,
Tel. +44 1908 652119, Fax. +44 1908 655910,
Dr Andre Brack,
Centre de Biophysique Moelculaire,
Tel. +33 238 255576, Fax. +33 238631517,
Dr Jean-Loup Bertaux,
Service d'Aeronomie du CNRS,
Tel. +33 1 64474251, Fax. +33 1 69202999,
Professor Gerhard Neukum,
Institut fur Weltsraumsensorik und Planetenerkundung, DLR,
Tel. +49 30 67055300,
mobile: +49 171 7647177,
Fax. +49 30 67055303, E-mail: gerhard.neukumdlr.de
Tel. +31 715 5653613
Fax. +31 715 5654697, E-mail: achicarrestec.esa.nl