Europe's first adventure to Mars successfully launched

Posted: June 2, 2003

Kicking off a string of Mars launches this month, a Russian Soyuz booster did its job Monday as it placed the first European mission to the Red Planet onto the path that will see it arrive late this year amidst a flurry of international science missions.

"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 Professor David Southwood, director of the European Space Agency's science program.

Mars Express has departed Earth for its cruise to the Red Planet. Credit: ESA
Liftoff from the historic Baikonur Cosmodrome was on time at 1745:26 GMT (1:45:26 p.m. EDT) -- a nighttime ascent from the Kazakhstan desert in Central Asia.

The three core Soyuz stages all fired for the planned duration and jettisoned, leaving the Fregat upper stage to conduct two burns. The first firing finished the job of putting Mars Express and its companion Beagle 2 into Earth orbit, then the stage ignited again to put the craft onto an escape trajectory to Mars.

Soyuz rocket lifts off with Mars Express. Credit: ESA
"Mars Express made a very, very good start to its long journey to the Red Planet," Southwood said shortly after liftoff.

The 2,500-pound Mars Express separated from the rocket booster as expected 92 minutes into the flight. Ground controllers established contact with the craft thereafter, confirming systems were in good health and the solar arrays had deployed.

"It looks as though we got a spacecraft in really excellent condition and we are well on our way for our first mission to Mars," mission control reported.

Ground controllers will soon run a number of tests and checkouts on the systems and instruments that will be critical to completing the mission. Up to three course-correction maneuvers could also be needed to refine the path of Mars Express on its way to intercept Mars.

Beagle 2 headed for Martian surface
As the Mars Express orbiter nears the planet, critical commands will be issued to release the small lander dubbed Beagle 2 on December 19, about six days prior to arrival.

Accurate guidance prior to separation is key because Beagle 2 contains no propulsion system to correct any potential errors.

The Beagle 2 lander package separates from Mars Express orbiter. Credit: Starsem
Beagle's landing site is the Isidis Basin located near the equator of Mars. As the lander encounters the first traces of the Martian atmosphere, the heat shield take the brunt of the thermal heating. Parachutes will then deploy to slow the craft further, before the lander is released to a soft landing cushioned by air bags.

Landing is scheduled for December 25 shortly after 2:00 a.m. European time.

The air bags will then deflate, allowing Beagle 2 to unfurl its four solar array petals and robotic arm to begin the scientific investigations.

With a landed mass of just 72 pounds, the minuscule craft has a daunting task ahead of it -- the task of searching for evidence of past life on Mars.

In addition to the expected suite of cameras included in the payload, Beagle 2 also sports instruments designed to look for the presence of water, the existence of carbon molecules, and also to focus on potential organic materials, all of which are smoking guns for past life.

Other science goals include investigating the surface geology, the contents of the Martian atmosphere, and measuring a number of meteorological criteria at the landing site.

For more on the Beagle 2 mission's science objectives, see our separate story.

Mars Express will orbit the planet
Picking up some of the lost scientific objectives of the doomed Russian Mars '96 mission, Mars Express will slide into Martian orbit on Christmas Day to begin several years of intense studies of the Red Planet.

Mars Express nearing its destination. Credit: ESA
Mars Express will operate in its highly elliptical orbit for at least about two years, though the mission could be extended for more science investigations or to support communications between Earth and future spacecraft going to Mars.

Seven scientific instruments are aboard the Mars Express orbiter to probe the Red Planet's surface and subsurface characteristics, as well as for atmospheric studies.

The search for water is proclaimed to be the orbiter's most high-priority objective. Mars is believed to have once harbored significant amounts of water, but something happened that dried up the planet, which now only contains frozen ice caps in polar regions.

The Red Planet's atmosphere can no longer support the liquid form of water, but deep down below the surface scientists say there could be hidden stores of water where pressures and temperatures are more conducive to the presence of liquid water.

These theorized water stores could be in the form of permafrost, rivers, pools, or aquifers, ESA says. However, other hypotheses say that the water from ancient Mars could have escaped into space. Mars Express aims to settle the question.

Searching for water will be the primary goal of a sounding radar altimeter designed to map the Martian subsurface. A 40-meter antenna will send low frequency radio waves from orbit toward the surface. Some of these waves will make it beyond the surface before being reflected by certain materials located underground. The instrument was built jointly between Italy and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Cameras on the orbiter will image the entire planet in full color with a resolution of about 10 meters. A spectrometer is tasked with determining the mineral composition of Martian soil, while other instruments will attempt to discern the make-up of the planet's atmosphere.

The 'Express' concept
The $350 million price tag attached to Mars Express and Beagle 2 was the result of a number of cost-reducing decisions made in the mission's development.

The hardware used on the spacecraft came mostly from "off-the-shelf" technology, or it shared significant commonality with ESA's Rosetta comet probe. In fact, about 80 percent of the spacecraft is very similar to the materials used on Rosetta, the only exceptions being the Mars Express solar arrays, the launcher integration adapter, and on-board software.

The reduced cost and development time will be put to the test throughout the mission, but if successful it will serve as an example to be used by future space missions.

ESA already has approved the Venus Express mission, which uses the same bus design as Mars Express. Venus Express is to be launched toward Earth's other neighbor in the cosmos in late 2005. So far though, the project development -- a major test in and of itself -- has proven successful. "We have managed to deliver within budget and schedule and still have executed the spacecraft test program we planned form the beginning," said Mars Express project manager Rudi Schmidt.

"The biggest challenge was probably to keep to the schedule whilst not doing any compromise on the test program," Schmidt told Spaceflight Now.

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