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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 10:50 GMT
Mission controllers unleash Beagle
By David Shukman
The BBC's science correspondent watches Europe's mission controllers as they separate Beagle 2 from its mothership, Mars Express

There was a bright, nervous look in the eyes of the European Space Agency scientists and officials during the final countdown to the release of Beagle 2 from Mars Express.

Beagle moves away from Mars Express
Beagle dashes away - pictured (left) 20 metres from Mars Express
Europe has never before tried anything as ambitious as a mission to another planet so this operation represented a coming of age.

No wonder there was extraordinary tension in the air at Esa's Space Operations Centre at Darmstadt in Germany.

For years overshadowed by the US space agency (Nasa), Esa now had a chance to show what it could do.

At the helm in the control centre stood the rock-steady figure of Mike Mackay.

Duke Of York (left) and Professor Colin Pillinger (PA)

As this sturdy Ulsterman ran through the systems checks - "give me a go or no go for launch" - there wasn't quite the edge of Apollo legend Gene Kranz but you could tell pulses were quickening nonetheless.

A huge screen showed an image of Mars Express and, in the distance, a growing dot representing Mars.

One slip of the mouse, one tiny miscalculation, and the Beagle 2 lander could have remained stuck on Mars Express, ruining both parts of the mission. Reputations rather than lives were at stake.

The fidgeting was worst during the long hours of radio silence.

Normally calm giants of the European space scene, like Esa's science director David Southwood, were openly uncomfortable.

Pleasantries were exchanged but eyes flickered to the screens for the slightest hint of news.

The coffee cups piled high, the biscuit trays were attacked by trembling hands and the air grew heavy. It was a pleasure to step outside into the freezing mist.

Esoc control room (European Space Agency)
In the driving seat: The Esoc control room
And then the cameras cut to the control room. Did the men there really seem to be standing taller?

Certainly I'd never seen so many scientists grinning. The announcement of a successful separation brought immediate applause.

Glasses of champagne were handed out. But not much was drunk.

After all the tension and worrying, there wasn't laughter so much as relief.

Shoulders sagged and tiredness suddenly became more deeply etched on exhausted faces.

Behind the bland walls of the space centre, screened from the pre-Christmas traffic, Europe's space community had passed the test.

Now the really big one is to come.

The BBC's David Shukman
"We are told that Beagle 2 is now on an accurate course for landing"

Mars Express flight director Mike McKay
receives the roll-call which allows Beagle 2 to separate

Mars Express Diary: 22 days to go
04 Dec 03 |  Science/Nature

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