Europe goes to Mars

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The European Space Agency has shrugged off recent failures and launched a mission to answer David Bowie's question: "Is there life on Mars?".

In a trans-galactic quest to answer the fascinating question of whether life exists on Mars, the European Space Agency (ESA) will soon send its Mars Express to the Red Planet in search of water, the basic building block of life. The little spacecraft will also carry Europe's hopes of remaining a player in space exploration. While most of the recent focus has been on the tragic loss of the NASA space shuttle Colombia, ESA has had a few, albeit non-fatal, mishaps of its own. Setbacks On 14 January 2003, ESA announced the postponement of its EUR 1 billion comet-chasing mission called Rosetta because the intended launch Ariane 5 had exploded on take-off on another mission the previous month. The Ariane 5 is the latest in a series of European rockets and its destruction threatened ESA's ability to continue its independent space exploration programme. Some relief came in May when ESA's 15 member states agreed to continue backing the Ariane 5. But what of the Rosetta mission? Named after the famous Rosetta stone which led to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics almost 200 years ago, the mission was supposed to chase after and encounter Comet Wirtanen in 2011. The plan was to orbit the comet — an object only 1.2km wide — as it cruises through the inner solar system at 135,000kmh. For six months, Rosetta was to extensively map the comet surface, prior to selecting a landing site. In July 2012, a lander was to self-eject from the spacecraft from a height of just 1km to examine the make-up of the comet up close and personal. These exciting plans went up in smoke with the Ariane 5. But on 29 May, ESA announced Rosetta had a new goal. It will launch on February 2004 from Kourou, French Guiana, using an Ariane-5 launcher to rendezvous with Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenkol in November 2014. ESA ESA was founded in 1971 and had 15 member states: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain. Canada has special status and participates in some projects under a co-operative agreement. Its science programme has had a number of firsts, including Giotto which took the first close-up pictures of a comet nucleus (Halley); Hipparcos, which fixed the position of the stars more accurately than before; IUE, the first space observatory ever launched; and Ulysses, the first spacecraft to fly over the sun's poles. Unlike NASA and its Russian counterpart, ESA is strictly non-military and spans national borders. Its headquarters are in Paris, but the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) is the design hub for most ESA spacecraft and is situated in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. The control centre for ESA satellites in orbit is based in Darmstadt, Germany. The European Astronauts Centre trains astronauts and is situated in Cologne, Germany, while ESRIN, based near Rome, Italy, is the agency's information technology centre. In addition, ESA has liaison offices in the US, Russia and Belgium, plus a launch base in French Guiana, South America ESA has a special relationship with the European Union. Mars Express The Mars Express mission launching on 2 June will be a ground-breaking project for Europe. "Mars Express is the first fully European mission to any planet and is an exciting challenge for European technology," explains the mission project manager, Rudi Schimdt. Mars Express is also the first mission — since NASA's Viking probes in the 1970s — dedicated to searching for signs of life, past or present, on the Red Planet. US space agency Nasa has sent missions to Mars, but were more about testing remote landers than attempting to find the locals. Mars Express is being sent on its six-month journey on a Russian-made Soyuz/Fregat launcher from the Russian-run Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan. Five days before reaching the planet, the spacecraft will eject a landing craft, named Beagle 2 after Charles Darwin's ship. Powered only by the pull of the planet's gravity, the lander's heat resistant shield will protect the lander as friction with the upper atmosphere slows it down. When its speed has fallen to about 1,600kmh, parachutes will deploy to slow it further. Finally, large gas-filled bags will inflate to protect it as it bounces to a halt on Isidis Planitia, the selected landing site. The lander will use a special robot arm and drill to search for signs of water and organic material in the planet soil. The mission illustrates ESA's truly international nature. The prime contractor for the project is the Astrium company in Toulouse, France, while the lander is British designed and built. Companies in all other ESA member states also worked on the project. The international collaboration continues as Mars Express arrives at its destination. The European craft will be in the company and supported by the Japanese Nozomi, which will go into orbit around Mars shortly after the Mars Express arrives. The Mars Express landing craft, Beagle 2, will land on Mars at about the same time as NASA's Mars Rover mission. The two agencies have arranged that they will be able to use each other's orbitors as back ups for relaying information back to Earth. And illustrating that the Cold War is a distant memory, five of the 8 instruments on the Mars Express are descendants of instruments designed for Russia's failed Mars 96 mission. "We are a real international team. French and English are the official language, but you can hear at least four or five more as you walk through an ESA office," Schmidt says. But why go to Mars? "Mars has always held a fascination for us on Earth. It is our immediate neighbour out from the sun and is the most likely one to have had life at some stage," he says. The Mars Express will try to settle the debate once and for all about whether there is water on the Red Planet. But there are other goals too: "As well as helping to answer the big questions about water and life, our investigations will provide clues as to why the north of the planet is so smooth and the south is so rugged," Schmidt says. And what if the lander actually encounters an alien: "Let's hope it walks up to the Beagle and looks into its camera," he quips. 30 May 2003 Subject: Life in Holland

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