Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Europe's space programs place more emphasis on Mars

Posted: November 24, 2000

The Red Planet as seen by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. Photo: NASA/JPL/MSSS
The European Space Agency (ESA) is planning to focus more on its Mars programs throughout the coming decades, starting with the Mars Express and Beagle 2 space probes to be launched in 2003.

The new program will involve more international partners and Europe hopes to augment other countries' Martian exploration initiatives that are planning to conduct various experiments and observations both from orbit above the Red Planet and from the surface.

Programs with plans for Mars are not limited to just ESA -- individual space agencies throughout the continent are also targeting Mars.

ESA will be the first European space program to take a shot at Mars. Mars Express and the British Beagle 2 space probes will launch atop a Soyuz-Fregat rocket in June 2003. After arriving at Mars, Beagle 2 will separate from Mars Express and enter the Martian atmosphere bound for a landing in the Martian northern hemisphere. During its 180 Martian days of operations, the less than 100-pound Beagle 2 lander will analyze samples of soil from the planet, which will be conducted alongside studies of the environment.

Beagle 2's partner during the six-month cruise from the Earth to Mars -- ESA's Mars Express -- will focus much its time in orbit toward the search for sub-surface water. Other instruments on the orbiter will experiment with remote sensing and study the Martian atmosphere, structure, and geology.

"The European program looks very promising. Mars Express is the most complex remote sensing mission around -- and Beagle 2 is the most sophisticated science lab in the whole bunch of missions so far approved or outlined," said Risto Pellinen, chairman of the International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG). The IMEWG met at a conference in Helsinki, Finland, earlier this month to discuss future plans for Mars.

  Beagle 2
An artist's concept of Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars. Photo: ESA
However, Pellinen thinks that future endeavors to Mars will require international contributions in order to succeed. "Nobody can run their own Mars exploration program. I think the mishaps have taught us that," he said.

The new program set forth since NASA's Mars failures in 1999 will do just that. Right now, only one operational probe is studying the Martian system -- NASA's Mars Global Surveyor.

In April 2001, NASA's next Mars-bound craft, the Mars Odyssey, will be launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Delta 2 rocket. Once in orbit around Mars, the orbiter will map the surface of Mars while conducting chemical composition experiments of the surface of Earth's neighbor.

In 2003, no fewer than five separate probes will journey to Mars -- three landers (one from Britain and two from NASA) and two orbiters (one from ESA and one from Japan).

A NASA orbiter will travel to the Red Planet in 2005, followed two years later by a French orbiter and four small "netlanders" are scheduled to trek to Mars, in close company with two orbiters from NASA and Italy.

In 2009, a joint orbiter between NASA and Italy is proposed to be sent to Mars. The first sample return mission to Mars, which is to involve NASA and CNES, the French space agency, is set to take place some time after 2010 -- most likely between 2011 and 2016.

This listing is most certainly subject to change. Officials say that another NASA mission is in the works and it could be launched to Mars in 2007. The German space agency, DLR, is considering sending a small probe to Mars. Equipment from the ESA Mars Express mission could even be used to launch another mission to Mars in 2005. "The Mars Express platform is made for Mars. So it is worth seeing if there is any way of using this opportunity," said Pellinen of this idea.

The IMEWG will meet again in Florida next April to discuss how the program should look after 2010.