Mars Explorer Update

Image credit: NASA

Just 48 hours after launch, NASA’s Spirit spacecraft was 5.6 million kilometres away from Earth and on track for Mars. Just after launch, Spirit was rotating 12.03 times a minute and then thrusters on board reduced this to 2 rotations a minute. As the spin rate slowed down, the star scanners on Spirit were able to recognize various constellations and plot its position. The next hurdle will be when Spirit performs a trajectory-correction maneuver sometime soon. Spirit will arrive at Mars on January 4, 2004.

NASA’s Spirit spacecraft, the first of twin Mars Exploration Rovers, has successfully reduced its spin rate as planned and switched to celestial navigation using a star scanner.

All systems on the spacecraft are in good health. As of 48 hours after the June 10 launch, Spirit had traveled 5,630,000 kilometers (3,500,000 miles) and was at a distance of 610,000 kilometers (380,000 miles) from Earth.

After separation from the third stage of its Delta II launch vehicle on Tuesday, Spirit was spinning 12.03 rotations per minute. Onboard thrusters were used Wednesday to reduce the spin rate to approximately 2 rotations per minute, the designed rate for the cruise to Mars. After the spinning slowed, Spirit’s star scanner found stars that are being used as reference points for spacecraft attitude.

Navigators and other flight team members at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., will be deciding soon when to perform the first of several trajectory-correction maneuvers planned during the seven-month trip between Earth and Mars.

Spirit will arrive at Mars on Jan. 4, 2004, Universal Time (evening of Jan. 3, 2004, Eastern and Pacific times). The rover will examine its landing area in Mars’ Gusev Crater for geological evidence about the history of water on Mars.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. Additional information about the project is available from JPL at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/mer and from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., at http://athena.cornell.edu .

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Rover Heads to Mars

NASA’s first Mars Explorer rover roared into space on Tuesday on board a Boeing Delta II rocket after two days of delays to poor weather, and some last minute glitches with ground tracking stations. The newly named rover, “Spirit”, will take seven months to reach Mars. Once it does arrive, the six-wheeled Spirit will land on the surface of the Red Planet, and begin exploring the surface searching for evidence of past water. The second rover, “Opportunity”, was originally expected to launch on June 25, but it might be also be delayed because Spirit’s launch was pushed back.

Bad Weather Pushed Back Mars Explorer

The launch of NASA’s Mars Explorer spacecraft was pushed back to Tuesday because of bad weather at the Cape Canaveral, Florida launch pad. The spacecraft was originally supposed to lift off on Sunday, but storms forced the controllers to delay the launch, and then again on Monday. If the weather behaves, Explorer will lift off at 1758 GMT (1:58 pm EDT) and carry the newly named rover “Spirit” towards Mars. The second rover, “Opportunity” will follow on June 25.

Mars Environment Changes More than Previously Thought

Image credit: NASA

A year’s worth of observations from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft is starting to overturn some older theories about how environmentally active the Red Planet is. Using Odyssey’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), scientists were able to detect geological formations of lava and rock which were deposited under varying environmental condition. One example is kilometre wide sheets of bedrock which are being scoured bare by wind. If Mars were less active, they should be covered in sand and dust.

The first overview analysis of a year’s worth of high-resolution infrared data gathered by the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft is opening Mars to a new kind of detailed geological analysis and revealing a dynamic planet that has experienced dramatic environmental change.

The report by THEMIS’s science team will appear in an upcoming issue of Science and will be released on June 5 in the magazine’s online preview, Science Express.

“THEMIS is creating a set of data that is going to revolutionize our mapping of the planet and our idea of the planet’s geology,” said lead author and THEMIS Principal Investigator Philip Christensen, Korrick Professor of Geological Sciences at Arizona State University. “It will keep Mars scientists busy for the next 20 years trying to understand the processes that have produced this landscape.”

THEMIS is providing planetary geologists with detailed temperature and infrared radiation images of the martian surface. The images reveal geological details that were impossible to detect even with the high-resolution Mars Orbital Camera on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and that have 300 times higher resolution than MGS’s Thermal Emission Spectrometer. Among the significant findings noted in the report is the detection of layers in the martian surface that indicate major changes in past environmental conditions.

“With a visible light camera, I can take a picture of a lava flow, but even with the highest resolution cameras that we have today the smallest thing we can see is the size of a bus and in order to do geology I need to have more detail,” said Christensen.

“The camera on Mars Global Surveyor takes exquisite images that show layers, but it doesn’t tell me anything about composition – is it a layer of boulders with a layer of sand on top? I have no way of knowing. With the THEMIS temperature data, I can actually get an idea because the layers vary – and each layer has remarkably different physical properties.”

Daytime and nighttime temperature data can allow scientists to distinguish between solid rock and a variety of loose materials, from boulders to sand and dust. As any beach-goer knows, fine-grained sand heats up more rapidly at the surface than solid stone (which transmits more heat inward) but it also cools off more rapidly at night, when solid materials retain heat.

“We have seen layers, each with dramatically different physical properties, in places like Terra Meridiani,” Christensen said. “Why do the physical properties in the different layers change? They change because the environment in which those rocks were deposited changed.

“It’s very difficult to say exactly what happened in any particular place, but what we’ve found is that in many places on Mars it hasn’t just been the same old thing happening for year after year for billions of years. These data have been so remarkable and so different from all of our previous experience that it has taken time to sift through the images and figure out what we’re seeing.”

Among the details that have stood out so far are kilometer-wide stretches of bare bedrock that Christensen notes were unexpected, given the Mars’ known dustiness. Large areas of exposed rock indicate that strong environmental forces are currently at work, “scouring” from the surface any past sediment as well as any new material that might be falling from the atmosphere.

Also unexpected is the finding that accumulations of loose rock are common on martian hillsides, indicating recent processes of weathering continuing to affect the planet. ” If those rocks had been made a billion years ago, they’d be covered with dust,” Christensen pointed out. “This shows a dynamic Mars – it’s an active place.”

However, despite Odyssey’s past findings of significant martian ice deposits, there are also indications that, in many places on the planet, water may not be one of the active causes behind the observed geological features.

Analyzing the spectra from the ten different bands of infrared light the instrument can detect, the THEMIS team has begun to identify specific mineral deposits, including a significant layer of the mineral olivine near the bottom of a four-and-a-half kilometer deep canyon known as Ganges Chasma. Olivine, Christensen notes, is significant because it decomposes rapidly in the presence of water.

“This gives us an interesting perspective of water on Mars,” he said. “There can’t have been much water – ever — in this place. If there was groundwater present when it was deep within the surface, the olivine would have disappeared. And since the canyon has opened up, if there had ever been water at the surface it would be gone too. This is a very dry place, because it’s been exposed for hundreds of millions of years. We know that some places on Mars have water, but here we see that some really don’t.”

Overall, Christensen notes that the emerging diversity and complexity of the planet point to the likelihood of future surprises and keep enlarging the possibilities for discovery on Mars.

“With Odyssey, we are looking at Mars in its entirety, in context. It’s remarkable how much this has already changed our view of the complexity and richness of the planet. We discovered that it has a really dynamic geologic history. It has far more ice and water than we thought — we’re seeing snow and gullies, layers – and there are also processes involving volcanoes, impact craters and wind. It’s a fascinating place.”

Original Source: NASA News Release

Mars Express Passes Another Crucial Stage

Image credit: ESA

Europe’s mission to Mars continues with the next crucial step of Mars Express’ journey out of the way. The clamps holding Beagle 2 tightly during launch were released over the course of 30 minutes on Thursday morning. If this phase had malfunctioned, Mars Express wouldn’t have been able to release Beagle 2 when they reached Mars, ending the mission before it had begun. The spacecraft is expected to arrive at Mars in late December.

Europe’s first mission to the Red Planet, continues its successful mission with another successful ‘high-risk’ post-launch milestone. Mars Express engineers breathed a sigh of relief this morning at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), in Germany.

If a particularly delicate operation had not proceeded as planned, it would have been impossible to deploy the Mars Express lander, Beagle 2, on arrival at Mars.

This crucial operation consisted of releasing Beagle-2’s launch clamps. These clamps are extra attachments that ensure the lander stays perfectly fixed to the spacecraft during the launch and is not affected by launch vibrations. After the launch, these clamps are no longer needed, since another mechanism keeps Beagle 2 in place during the six-month trip to the Red Planet.

This second mechanism allows Mars Express to deploy Beagle 2 on arrival at Mars. However, if the launch clamps had not released today, the second mechanism would have failed. “The Beagle-2 mission would have been over before it had even started!” commented ESA Lander Manager, Con McCarthy.

The release of the launch clamps started at 10.10 CEST and lasted about 30 minutes. The release mechanism itself is unusual. Usually, launch clamps contain a firework-like mechanism, but Mars Express had a much gentler release mechanism for Beagle. It consisted of a sleeve over a clamp bolt; an electric current heats the sleeve to about 100?C. At that temperature, the sleeve expands and the bolt snaps. There were three bolts and they all broke in sequence.

“We had to wait two minutes for the expansion of the sleeve which snapped the bolt. The atmosphere in the room was tense and those two minutes seemed to last an eternity! When the first bolt went, a lot of tension was released,” says McCarthy.

There are more hurdles ahead but Mars Express is demonstrating that it can deal with the many challenges on the way to the Red Planet.

Original Source: ESA News Release

NASA Ready for Twin Rover Launch

Image credit: NASA

The invasion of Mars continues. Next up: NASA’s Mars Explorer Rover-A which has been cleared to launch Sunday, June 8 at 1805 GMT (2:05pm EDT). Rover-A and its twin carry a suite of geological instruments to examine rocks and soil searching for evidence of past water on Mars. Scientists back on Earth will guide the rovers to various target rocks for closer examination. The second rover is due to launch June 25 and will aim towards a different landing site on the Red Planet.

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover project kicks off by launching the first of two unique robotic geologists on June 8. The identical rolling rovers can see sharper images, explore farther and examine rocks better than anything that’s ever landed on Mars. The second rover mission, bound for a different site on Mars, will launch as soon as June 25.

“The instrumentation onboard these rovers, combined with their great mobility, will offer a totally new view of Mars, including a microscopic view inside rocks for the first time,” said Dr. Ed Weiler, associate administrator for space science at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. However, missions to Mars have proven to be far more hazardous than missions to other planets. Historically, two out of three missions, from all countries that have tried to land on Mars, ended in failure. We have done everything we can to ensure our rovers have the best chance of success.”

The first Mars Exploration Rover will arrive at Mars on Jan. 4, 2004; the second on Jan. 25. Plans call for each to operate for at least three months.

These missions continue NASA’s quest to understand the role of water on Mars. “We will be using the rovers to find rocks and soils that could hold clues about wet environments of Mars’ past,” said Dr. Cathy Weitz, Mars Exploration Rover program scientist at NASA Headquarters. “We’ll analyze the clues to assess whether those environments may have been conducive to life.”

First, the rovers have to safely reach Mars. “The rovers will use innovations to aid in a safe landing, but risks remain,” said Peter Theisinger, Mars Exploration Rover project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The rovers will bounce to airbag-cushioned landings at sites offering a balance of favorable conditions for safe landings and interesting science. The designated site for the first mission is Gusev Crater. The second rover will go to a site called Meridiani Planum. “Gusev and Meridiani give us two different types of evidence about liquid water in Mars’ history,” said Dr. Joy Crisp, Mars Exploration Rover project scientist at JPL. “Gusev appears to have been a crater lake. The channel of an ancient riverbed indicates water flowed right into it. Meridiani has a large deposit of gray hematite, a mineral that usually forms in a wet environment.”

The rovers, working as robotic field geologists, will examine the sites for clues about what happened there. “The clues are in the rocks, but you can’t go to every rock, so you split the job into two pieces,” said Dr. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the package of science instruments on the rovers.

First, a panoramic camera at human-eye height, and a miniature thermal emission spectrometer with infrared vision help scientists identify the most interesting rocks. The rovers can watch for hazards and maneuver around them. Each six-wheeled robot has a deck of solar panels, about the size of a kitchen table, for power. The rover drives to the selected rock and extends an arm with tools on the end. Then, a microscopic imager, like a geologist’s hand lens, gives a close-up view of the rock’s texture. Two spectrometers identify the composition of the rock. The fourth tool substitutes for a geologist’s hammer. It exposes the fresh interior of a rock by scraping away the weathered surface layer.

Both rover missions will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on Delta II launch vehicles. Launch opportunities begin for the first mission at 2:06 p.m. (Eastern Daylight Time) June 8 and for the second mission at 12:38 a.m. June 25, and repeat twice daily for up to 21 days for each mission.

“We see the twin rovers as stepping stones for the rest of the decade and to a future decade of Mars exploration that will ultimately provide the knowledge necessary for human exploration,” said Orlando Figueroa, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Mars Express is On Its Way

Image credit: ESA

After a picture perfect launch Monday afternoon, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express is now headed towards the Red Planet. The spacecraft, attached to the top of a 4-stage Russian Soyuz-Fregat rocket, lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome at 1745 GMT. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, the rocket shed each one of its four stages during an orbit around the Earth and then hurled the Mars Express into its planned trajectory. Mars Express communicated back with European Space Operations at 1944 GMT. The probe’s solar arrays had deployed properly, its batteries are working, and the spacecraft seems to be working normally. It will reach Mars in another six months.

The European Mars Express space probe has been placed successfully in a trajectory that will take it beyond the terrestrial environment and on the way to Mars ? getting there in late December.

This first European Space Agency probe to head for another planet will enter an orbit around Mars, from where it will perform detailed studies of the planet?s surface, its subsurface structures and its atmosphere. It will also deploy Beagle 2, a small autonomous station which will land on the planet, studying its surface and looking for possible signs of life, past or present.

The probe, weighing in at 1 120 kg, was built on ESA?s behalf by a European team led by Astrium. It set out on its journey to Mars aboard a Soyuz-Fregat launcher, under Starsem operational management. The launcher lifted off from Ba?konur in Kazakhstan on 2 June at 23.45 local time (17:45 GMT). An interim orbit around the Earth was reached following a first firing of the Fregat upper stage. One hour thirty-two minutes after lift off, the probe was injected into its interplanetary orbit.

“Europe is on its way to Mars to stake its claim in the most detailed and complete exploration ever done of the Red Planet. We can be very proud of this and of the speed with which have achieved this goal”, said David Southwood, ESA’s Director of Science witnessing the launch from Baikonur. Contact with Mars Express has been established by ESOC, ESA?s satellite control centre, located in Darmstadt, Germany.

The probe is pointing correctly towards the Sun and has deployed its solar panels. All on-board systems are operating faultlessly. Two days from now, the probe will perform a corrective man?uvre that will place it in a Mars-bound trajectory, while the Fregat stage, trailing behind, will vanish into space ? there will be no risk of it crashing into and contaminating the Red Planet.

Mars Express will then travel away from Earth at a speed exceeding 30 km/s (3 km/s in relation to the Earth), on a six-month and 400 million kilometre journey through the solar system. Once all payload operations have been checked out, the probe will be largely deactivated. During this period, the spacecraft will contact Earth only once a day. Mid-journey correction of its trajectory is scheduled for September.

There in time for Christmas
Following reactivation of its systems at the end of November, Mars Express will get ready to release Beagle 2. The 60 kg capsule containing the tiny lander does not incorporate its own propulsion and steering system and will be released into a collision trajectory with Mars, on 20 December. It will enter the Martian atmosphere on Christmas day, after five days? ballistic flight.

As it descends, the lander will be protected in the first instance by a heat-shield; two parachutes will then open to provide further deceleration. With its weight down to 30 kg at most, it will land in an equatorial region known as Isidis Planitia. Three airbags will soften the final impact. This crucial phase in the mission will last just ten minutes, from entry into the atmosphere to landing.

Meanwhile, the Mars Express probe proper will have performed a series of man?uvres through to a capture orbit. At this point its main motor will fire, providing the deceleration needed to acquire a highly elliptical transition orbit. Attaining the final operational orbit will call for four more firings. This 7.5 hour quasi-polar orbit will take the probe to within 250 km of the planet.

Getting to know Mars ? inside and out
Having landed on Mars, Beagle 2 ? named after HMS Beagle, on which Charles Darwin voyaged round the world, developing his evolutionary theory ? will deploy its solar panels and the payload adjustable workbench, a set of instruments (two cameras, a microscope and two spectrometers) mounted on the end of a robot arm.

It will proceed to explore its new environment, gathering geological and mineralogical data that should, for the first time, allow rock samples to be dated with absolute accuracy. Using a grinder and corer, and the ?mole?, a wire-guided mini-robot able to borrow its way under rocks and dig the ground to a depth of 2 m, samples will be collected and then examined in the GAP automated mini-laboratory, equipped with 12 furnaces and a mass spectrometer. The spectrometer will have the job of detecting possible signs of life and dating rock samples.

The Mars Express orbiter will carry out a detailed investigation of the planet, pointing its instruments at Mars for between half-an-hour and an hour per orbit and then, for the remainder of the time, at Earth to relay the information collected in this way and the data transmitted by Beagle 2.

The orbiter?s seven on-board instruments are expected to provide considerable information about the structure and evolution of Mars. A very high resolution stereo camera, the HRSC, will perform comprehensive mapping of the planet at 10 m resolution and will even be capable of photographing some areas to a precision of barely 2 m. The OMEGA spectrometer will draw up the first mineralogical map of the planet to 100 m precision.

Only a start to exploration
This mineralogical study will be taken further by the PFS spectrometer ? which will also chart the composition of the Martian atmosphere, a prerequisite for investigation of atmospheric dynamics. The MARSIS radar instrument, with its 40 m antenna, will sound the surface to a depth of 2 km, exploring its structure and above all searching for pockets of water.

Another instrument, ASPERA, will be tasked with investigating interaction between the upper atmosphere and the interplanetary medium. The focus here will be on determining how and at what rate the solar wind, in the absence of a magnetic field capable of deflecting it, scattered the bulk of the Martian atmosphere into space. Atmospheric investigation will also be performed by the SPICAM spectrometer and the MaRS experiment, with special emphasis on stellar occultation and radio signal propagation phenomena.

The orbiter mission should last at least one Martian year (687 days), while Beagle 2 is expected to operate on the planet?s surface for 180 days. This first European mission to Mars incorporates some of the objectives of the Euro-Russian Mars 96 mission, which came to grief when the Proton launcher failed. And indeed a Russian partner is cooperating on each of the orbiter?s instruments. Mars Express forms part of an international Mars exploration programme, featuring also the US probes Mars Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, the two Mars Exploration Rovers and the Japanese probe Nozomi. Mars Express may perhaps, within this partnership, relay data from the NASA rovers while Mars Odyssey may, if required, relay data from Beagle 2.

The mission?s scientific goals are of outstanding importance. Mars Express will, it is hoped, supply answers to the many questions raised by earlier missions ? questions concerning the planet?s evolution, the history of its internal activity, the presence of water below its surface, the possibility that Mars may at one time have been covered by oceans and thus have offered an environment conducive to the emergence of some form of life, and even the possibility that life may still be present, somewhere in putative subterranean aquifers. In addition the lander doing direct analysis of the soil and the environment comprises a truly unique mission.

Mars Express, drawing heavily on elements of the Rosetta spacecraft awaiting to be launched to a comet next year, paves the way for other ESA-led planetary missions, with Venus Express planned for 2005 and the BepiColombo mission to Mercury at the end of the decade. It is a precursor too for continuing Mars mission activity under Aurora, the programme of exploration of our solar system.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Mars Express is Ready For Launch

Image credit: ESA

Europe is ready to begin this summer’s invasion of Mars with the launch of its Mars Express spacecraft, due to lift off on June 2. The spacecraft is currently packed safely away on top a Soyuz-Fregat rocket at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. If all goes well, the rocket will lift off at 1745 GMT and then deploy Mars Express 90 minutes later. The first critical hurdle for the mission will be three days after launch when the spacecraft needs to release the launch clamps holding the Beagle-2 lander so that it can be deployed in December when they reach Mars.

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-effective, but without compromising reliability and quality – there have been no cuts in tests or pre-launch preparations. Mars Express will face demanding 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 industry – 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.

Quicker, smarter?safe!
Mars Express?s design and development phase has taken about four years, compared with about six years for previous similar missions. And its cost, 300 million euros, is 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 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 were under heavy 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.

Launch
Mars Express will be launched on 2 June 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 is entering its orbit around Mars.

The last activities of an intense launch campaign are taking place in Baikonur at this very moment. Mars Express arrived at the Cosmodrome on 20 March. The spacecraft, fuelled with 457 kilograms of propellant, was mounted on the Soyuz launcher on 24 May in a process that the Russians call ?marriage?. The whole structure was rolled out to the launch pad on 29 May, 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 at their closest, which happens 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 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 European high-tech 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.

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 the 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 any more. A pyrotechnic device will be activated to release them. This will be a key step, necessary so that Beagle 2 can be ejected when the spacecraft arrives at Mars.

Every effort has been made to ensure that things go smoothly. Schmidt says: ?We have tested all aspects of the mission well enough to be confident that there will be no errors or trivial mistakes. Mars Express has been developed in record time, but there have been no compromises on 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 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 put it into the correct trajectory and drop it at a very precise point in space and at a specified 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.

Mars Express will study Mars for at least two years
Approaching Mars, the orbiter will eject the lander and then be left on a collision course with the planet. In another key manoeuvre, ground controllers will have to adjust its trajectory, reducing its speed to 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 get 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. It was chosen in the light of 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 tell operators at the United Kingdom?s Jodrell Bank radio telescope station that it has 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 help answer 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.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Beagle 2 is Ready for Launch

In less than five days the UK’s Mars Express mission will lift off, carrying the smallest lander ever sent to the Red Planet, the Beagle 2, in search of life. Weighing in at only 32.7 kilograms, the Beagle 2 will land on the surface of Mars on December 25 in the Idisis Basin near the Martian equator using a similar airbag technology employed by the Mars Pathfinder in 1997. Once safely on the surface, it will open up like set of solar panels like a 5-petaled flower and then use a robot arm to reach about 1-metre around it to collect samples and analyze them for the presence of life.

NASA Pushes Back Mars Rover Launch

NASA has decided to push back the launch of its first Mars Rover this summer to spend more time doing engineering reviews – at least three days, making the launch date no earlier than June 8. If all goes well, the first rover, MER-A will lift off on board a Delta 2 rocket and arrive at Mars on January 4, 2004. The second, MER-B will launch a few days later, and arrive on January 25. When they arrive at Mars, the twin rovers will explore the surface of the Red Planet, searching for past conditions that may have supported life.