Europeans get the bug to go to Mars
8 October 2001The Mars Society, the US-born group lobbying for the human exploration of Mars, is expanding into Europe.
Last weekend, the society held its first annual conference outside the US. Robert Zubrin, society president, told the gathering at Palais de la Decouverte (France's national science museum) in Paris that Europe lags 40 years behind the US and Russia in planetary exploration. Mars Express, the first European probe to the Red Planet, however, could herald a change. The European Space Agency will launch the orbiter and lander mission in 2003.
"Mars Express will be the first European planetary mission to get results because it will arrive at its destination before Huygens or SMART-1 (two other ESA solar system missions), even though it will be launched later than them," Agustin Chicarro, Mars Express project scientist told the meeting. He added that Mars Express will complement the Netlander mission, the next European mission led by France, which is presently scheduled for launch in 2007.
Primarily a geophysics mission, the Netlanders will probe the interior of the planet seismically from four different locations. The Mars Express lander, Beagle 2, will look for signs of past or present life and measure local atmospheric and ground conditions, whereas the orbiter will remotely sense the ground, atmosphere and sub-surface, he said.
Many of those attending the meeting have a passionate personal, but no professional, interest in Mars exploration. A member from the United Kingdom, who works in high street banking, had nurtured an interest in space travel since building a rocket out of household items at the age of five; as a hobby, a Dutch member reconstructs 3-D Martian landscapes from data taken by real spacecraft; and a 17-year old German member had taken time off school to attend.
As well as hearing about the latest results and space agency plans for Mars exploration, the delegates also had the opportunity to find out just how difficult it is to send a spacecraft to Mars. Next to the conference room was the museum's exhibition "Objectif Mars" which runs until 6 November (?). The hands-on exhibits allow visitors to hone their skills in designing and implementing a Mars mission. This visitor found that the hazards are considerable. So when will it be prudent to send humans to Mars?
The Mars Society would like it to be done as soon as possible, but space agencies are taking a longer term approach. There are many technologies to be developed tried and tested first, the meeting heard from space agency representatives. "Mars is a small planet and if we want to know it, we have to move on the surface - but first we have to land," said one. Nowadays, spacecraft can aim to land within an ellipse many kilometres across. For safety reasons, manned spacecraft will need to target a specific site far more accurately. Work is also underway on vehicles capable of moving over rough Martian terrain. These range from a Marsopod developed in the former Soviet Union, to a Marsball inflated with Martian air, to balloons with a trailing tether.
There's plenty of European interest in Mars exploration, according to Didier Schmitt from ESA's manned spaceflight directorate who has recently conducted a survey of European research institutes. "The search for extraterrestrial life is the key to exploration. We're preparing for manned missions because we'll be able to do the science more quickly," he said.
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