Anticipating Christmas on the Red Planet
19 December 2003
The European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft is about to say farewell to the Beagle 2 lander on 19 December, as the latter is released and heads off to the surface of Mars. Once separated from Mars Express, Beagle 2 becomes a spacecraft in its own right for the last five days of its momentous journey to study some of the mysteries of the Red Planet.
The ESA's Mars Express was launched from Earth on 2 June 2003, after a six-month cruise at an average speed of about 10 kilometres per second and covering a distance of about 400 million kilometres. After a very complicated and challenging series of operations during the night of 24/25 December 2003, the probe will be injected into an elliptical orbit near the poles of the Red Planet, while the Beagle 2 lander - released from the mother craft six days earlier - is expected to touchdown on the surface of Mars.
On 19 December, ESA's ground control team at Darmstadt (Germany) will send the command for the Beagle 2 lander to separate from Mars Express. A pyrotechnic device will be fired to slowly release a loaded spring, which will gently push Beagle 2 away from the mother spacecraft.
Data on the spacecraft's position and speed will be used by mission engineers to assess whether the lander was successfully released. In addition, the onboard Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) should provide an image showing the lander slowly moving away towards the Martian surface.
Beagle 2 will operate on the surface for about six Earth months, relaying data back to Earth via Mars Express. The Beagle 2 lander will incorporate a number of instruments to aid research into Mars and the chances of finding life on this frozen desert, including ASPERA (Energetic Neutral Atoms Analyser) to study how the solar wind interacts with the Martian atmosphere, and discover how water vapour and other gases could have escaped from Mars in the past, and HRSC (High/Super Resolution Stereo Colour Imager), a stereoscopic camera that will photograph the Martian surface, revealing details as small as 2 metres. Other instruments will measure temperature, pressure and variations in gravity in the atmosphere, map the distribution of water and ice in the upper sub-surface, determine the mineral content of the surface and molecular content of the atmosphere, and study the composition of the Martian atmosphere.
According to Guy Murphy, President of Mars Society Australia, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising public awareness of the importance of sending humans to Mars, the rover missions represent "an exciting new phase of exploration. If the Beagle lander finds evidence of life on Mars, past or present, however slim, there will be a great deal of pressure to send people to Mars to further investigate. This mission could therefore be an important precursor to a human presence on Mars."
Beagle 2 isn't the only lander heading towards the surface of Mars at the moment. NASA has sent two Mars Exploration Rover robots on their way to Mars, with both scheduled to arrive in January.
Once Beagle 2 lands on Mars, the outer casing will be opened and the solar panels unfold, charging the batteries that power the lander. Then a robotic arm will start to operate, with most of the experiments attached to its end. These include a corer/grinder and mole, which will be used to collect rock and soil samples for analysis. The mole will be able to crawl up to several metres on the surface, but its pace is slow, at just 1 cm every six seconds. It can burrow underground to collect samples up to 1.5 metres below the surface. Ovens on the Beagle 2 can heat these samples in the presence of oxygen, to look for signs of past or present life.
Highlights of the release of Beagle 2 from Mars Express today will be webcast over the Internet at http://mars.esa.int.
For interviews with Guy Murphy, President of Mars Society Australia, please direct inquiries to or , PR Director (phone 0417 135 113).
The Mars Society was founded to further the goal of the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet.
For further information on MSA, see http://www.marssociety.org.au
For information about Beagle 2, see http://www.beagle2.com/index.htm
For information on Mars Express, see http://www.esa.int/export/SPECIALS/Mars_Express/