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<FONT size=1>ESA INFO 12-2003</FONT> Mars Express - how to be the fastest to the Red Planet

ESA INFO 12-2003 Mars Express - how to be the fastest to the Red Planet

2 June 2003

ESA's Mars Express is a pioneering mission for several reasons. It is the first European voyage to Mars, it has been built at much less than the usual cost, and in record time.

Mars Express is the first example of ESA's new style of developing scientific missions: faster, smarter and more cost-effectively, but without compromising reliability and quality. However, there have been no cuts in tests and pre-launch preparations. Mars Express will face important technical challenges during its trip to the Red Planet and ESA engineers have worked hard to make sure it meets them.

"With Mars Express, Europe is building its own expertise in many fields. This ranges from the development of science experiments and new technologies - new for European industries - to the control of a mission that includes landing on another planet. We have never done this before," says Rudi Schmidt, Mars Express Project Manager.


Mars Express's design and development phase has taken about four years, compared with about six years for previous similar missions. Also, Mars Express has cost 300 million Euros, much less than other comparable planetary missions. The 'magic' lies in the new managerial approach being used.

This new approach includes the reuse of existing hardware and instruments. Also, the mission was developed by a smaller ESA team, who gave more responsibility to the industry. Mars Express has been built by a consortium of 24 companies from ESA's 15 Member States and the United States, led by Astrium as prime contractor.

However, mission safety was never compromised. "Although we had high time pressure towards the end of the project, we did not drop any of the planned tests to save time. I call this a fast design phase, followed by thorough testing activity," says Schmidt.

This new streamlined development method will continue with Venus Express and probably other future missions.


Mars Express will be launched on 2 June 2003 on board a Soyuz-Fregat rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The mission consists of an orbiter and a lander, called Beagle 2. In its launch configuration, Mars Express is a honeycombed aluminium box that measures 1.5 by 1.8 by 1.4 metres (excluding solar panels), and weighs 1223 kilograms in total. The Beagle-2 lander travels attached to one side of the spacecraft, folded up rather like a very large pocket watch. Arrival at Mars is scheduled for late December this year, when Beagle 2 will land while the orbiter will be entering into orbit around Mars.

The last actions of an intense launch campaign are taking place in Baikonur at this very moment. Mars Express arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on 20 March 2003. The spacecraft, fuelled with 457 kilograms of propellant, was mounted onto the Soyuz launcher on 24 May 2003 in a process called 'marriage' by the Russians. The whole structure will be rolled out to the launch pad on 29 May 2003, four days before launch.

The fastest possible trip to Mars

One of the reasons scientists had to develop Mars Express so quickly arises from the fact that, this summer, Mars and the Earth will be especially close to each other. Although launch opportunities to go to Mars occur every 26 months - when the Sun, Earth and Mars form a straight line - this year the planets will be in their closest positions which occurs every 15 to 17 years. On top of that, calculations had shown that the best combination of fuel expenditure and travel time could only be achieved by launching Mars Express in the period between 23 May and 21 June. The Mars Express team had to work very hard to meet this launch window.

As a tribute from one high-tech European organisation to another, Mars Express is carrying a small container of Ferrari red paint to the Red Planet.

After the launch

Mars Express will separate from the Soyuz Fregat upper stage 90 minutes after liftoff. Then the solar arrays will open and the spacecraft will make contact with ESA's ground station in New Norcia, Western Australia.

On the way to Mars, Mars Express will be travelling away from Earth at a speed of 3 kilometres per second. A crucial operation at this early stage of the trip will be to release Beagle-2 launch clamps three days after launch. These clamps are extra gears to make sure that the lander stays securely attached to the spacecraft during the launch, but once in space they are not needed anymore. A pyrotechnic device is then activated to release them. It will be a key step, necessary to eject Beagle 2 when the spacecraft arrives at Mars.

However, all efforts have been made to ensure things go smoothly. Schmidt says: "We have tested all aspects of the Mars Express mission well enough to be confident that there will be no errors or trivial mistakes. Mars Express has been developed in a record-breaking time, but there have been no compromises in testing, including the ground segment."

Orbiting and landing on Mars

Six days before arrival at Mars, the lander will be released. This operation is regarded as one of the most complex of the Mars Express mission. Beagle 2, which weighs only 65 kilograms, is too light to carry a steering mechanism and it is not designed to receive commands during cruise and landing. So Beagle 2 can only reach its planned landing site by relying on the orbiter to place it into the correct trajectory, and by dropping it at a very precise point in space and with a determined speed. The ground control team at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), in Darmstadt, Germany, will guide this manoeuvre. To be ready for the approach to Mars and the ejection operations, engineers have been training for months with simulators that resemble sophisticated computer games. Tests will continue after Mars Express's launch.

Approaching Mars, the orbiter ejects the lander and will be left on a collision course with the planet. In another key manoeuvre, ground controllers will have to adjust its trajectory, reducing its speed by 1.8 kilometres per second. At that speed, the planet's gravity will be able to 'capture' the Mars Express orbiter and put it into Mars orbit. Ground controllers will still have to perform several manoeuvres to set the spacecraft into its final operational state - a highly elliptical polar orbit - from where the scientific observations can begin.

In the meantime, Beagle 2 will have landed on Mars. The landing area covers a large ellipsis, 300 kilometres long and 150 kilometres wide, on an equatorial region called Isidis Planitia. The landing spot has been chosen also taking into account the strong Martian winds, and the relatively smooth surface of the site. The lander will deploy parachutes, and then large gas-filled bags will protect it as it bounces to a halt on the surface. Once landed, Beagle 2 will emit a 'beep', a signal that will allow operators at the United Kingdom's Jodrell Bank radio telescope station to know that it touched down safely. This 9-note call sign was composed for the Beagle-2 team by the British pop group, Blur.

Mars Express will investigate the Martian surface, subsurface, and atmosphere for at least two years. The lander will operate on the surface for about six Earth months, relaying its data to Earth through the orbiter.

Mars Express will contribute to answering the fundamental questions about Mars, such as the presence and quantity of water, and possible signs of present or past life. In the worldwide effort to explore the Red Planet in recent years, the European Mars Express mission represents the most thorough investigation of Mars attempted so far.

For further information, please contact:

ESA - Communication Department
Media Relations Office
Tel: +33 (0)1 5369 7155
Fax: +33 (0)1 5369 7690

Last Update: 1 September 2019
29-Jan-2023 18:34 UT

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