Sat, Dec 20, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Make-or-break time for Europe's Mars ambitions


European space controllers positioned the Mars Express spacecraft in preparation for a critical step in their mission to explore the Red Planet -- the launching of a probe designed to search the Martian surface for organic matter and water.

If all goes well, the Beagle 2 was to push off from the Mars Express and be sent on its way at 8:31 GMT yesterday. The British-built probe should land on the surface of the Red Planet roughly six days later.

Engineers at the European Space Agency's mission control in Darmstadt, in western Germany, expect to confirm the Beagle 2's launch at around 10:31 GMT.

The probe's launch is the first in a series of critical navigational maneuvers on which the success of the mission depends.

Officials say the launch consists of having the spacecraft gently push away the probe and setting it spinning to keep it stable as it heads toward Mars. Early on Dec. 25, the lander is expected to reach Mars' surface.

At the same time, mission engineers plan to position the Mars Express craft to fire its main engine for about 30 minutes, sending it into Martian orbit.

Should the attempt to drop the lander fail, it would disrupt the timing of efforts to put Mars Express into orbit, and possibly doom the mission, project manager Rudolf Schmidt said.

"If we get the timing wrong, the spacecraft could burn up in the atmosphere or miss Mars altogether," Schmidt said in a statement. "We just get one single chance."

The Mars Explorer, which cost about US$345 million, is an attempt to demonstrate that Europe can have an effective -- and relatively inexpensive -- space exploration program.

Launched atop a Russian Soyuz-Fregat rocket from the Baiknour cosmodrome in Kazakhstan June 2, Mars Express has weathered solar eruptions that bombarded it with high-energy particles, temporarily disrupting its computers, as well as an unexpected drop in electrical power.

The 65kg Beagle 2 -- named for the ship that carried naturalist Charles Darwin on his voyage of discovery in the 1830s -- will use a robotic arm to gather and sample rocks for evidence of organic matter and water, while Mars Express orbits overhead.

During its working life -- planned for one Martian year, or 687 Earth days -- engineers hope Mars Express will send back detailed overhead pictures of the Martian surface and use a powerful radar to scan for underground water.

Scientists think Mars, which still has frozen water in its ice caps, might have once had liquid water and appropriate conditions for life but lost it billions of years ago. It is thought water may also still exist as underground ice.

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