UK Scientists Prepare To Board The Mars Express
UK space scientists today expressed delight after the European Space Agency's Science Programme Committee (SPC) gave the go-ahead for the next stage in preparing for a robotic mission to Mars. The SPC has endorsed the Science Management Plan of the Mars Express mission as part of the agency's Horizon 2000 Plus science programme. An Announcement of Opportunity will be released at the beginning of December.
Mars Express is expected to be divided into two parts: an orbiter and a series of landers. The European Space Agency will provide the Mars orbiter, but the landers will require separate funding. Under the leadership of the Open University's Professor Colin Pillinger, a group of UK scientists and engineers from the Open University, Leicester University, University College London, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Matra Marconi Space, together with French and German colleagues, have fought hard to have the mission planning include a large lander that will be capable of contributing new data to the debate about life on the Red Planet.
This consortium intends to propose its design, named Beagle 2, as a candidate for this lander. In order to obtain soil samples from martian environments protected from the damaging effects of solar ultraviolet light, scientists need to probe under rocks or beneath the red, oxidised soil. Beagle 2 would carry a small autonomous rover equipped with a mole for burrowing into the subsurface and a mechanism for transporting samples to the main station. In-situ analysis of the samples will substantially improve our knowledge of martian geochemistry and will throw light on the question of whether life existed at some stage in the planet's evolution.
Under current plans, Mars Express will be launched by a Soyuz rocket in mid- 2003, the most favourable launch opportunity to Mars in the foreseeable future, with arrival in early 2004. Preliminary design estimates show that the 1100 kg orbiter would be able to carry 120 kg of its own scientific instruments and another 150-180 kg for the landers. This would mean that the mass of Beagle 2 could be around 90 kg, an additional 90 kg being made up of two or three other landers, which would constitute a network of seismic and weather stations.
The orbiter will also carry a number of instruments, developed with the help of UK scientists, which were lost on the ill-fated Mars 96 mission. It will be equipped to make geological maps at a resolution of 10 metres, to map the surface mineral composition, study atmospheric circulation and composition, and search for permafrost.
Dr Jacqueline Mitton, RAS Public Relations Officer
Phone: Cambridge ((0)1223) 564914
FAX: Cambridge ((0)1223) 572892
Peter Bond, Space Science Advisor