Mars Express takes shape - and on time, too!
30 January 2001The spacecraft ESA will send to Mars in 2003 is now well and truly under construction. Last week, engineers at Contraves, Zurich, Switzerland were celebrating the readiness of the Mars Express flight structure to undergo tests to ensure that it meets its design requirements. "The tests are starting on time. If you look at our planning from the beginning of the programme, we're keeping to the schedule. It's extremely pleasing," says Don McCoy who is responsible for assembly, integration and verification for Mars Express at ESTEC.
Once the tests are completed sometime in February, the structure - which is the skeleton of the spacecraft, equivalent to the chassis of a car - will spend the next year accumulating parts and undergoing further tests in different locations in Europe. By this time next year, it should have travelled extensively across the continent and acquired all the elements to turn it into the fully-fledged Mars Express spacecraft.
First stop will be Stevenage, UK where Astrium, UK will attach the propulsion system to the structure. Structure plus propulsion system will then travel to Alenia in Torino, Italy where accurate dummies of the spacecraft sub-systems and instruments will be mounted. The spacecraft will then travel to Intespace, Toulouse, France for mechanical tests lasting several months. At the end of the summer, it will return to Alenia, Torino for the dummies to be replaced by the flight models. After this step, it will be the complete spacecraft that will fly to Mars, with all sub-systems and instruments fully integrated.
One of the most important test periods will occur from June 2001, when the spacecraft mounted with dummies will be subjected to mechanical tests. Last week, all those who will be involved in this testing period met at Alenia, Torino to discuss and develop the plans. Representatives were present from Astrium SAS, the Mars Express prime contractor, ESTEC and Alenia, which will take overall responsibility for this series of tests even though some of them will be performed at Intespace, Toulouse. "There was a team spirit showing good cooperation and a clear commitment from the various parties to the success of the Mars Express mission," says McCoy.
Just before the meeting (17 January), Alenia had taken delivery of the flight structure of the Rosetta spacecraft, ESA's comet chaser which will be launched early in 2003, before Mars Express (see Rosetta news story). Rosetta and Mars Express share many subsystems and technologies in common. "Alenia is well suited to the Mars Express assembly, integration and verification, as they are currently performing similar duties for Rosetta, " says McCoy.