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Thursday, 25 July, 2002, 16:55 GMT 17:55 UK
Green light for Red Planet
Artist's concept of Mars Express near the Red Planet (European Space Agency)
From orbit, Mars Express could detect water

In May next year, Europe will embark on its first mission to explore the Red Planet.

The stakes are high - Mars Express aims to detect water under the Martian soil and look for signs of life, living or dead.

With a 167m euro price tag, for the space craft alone, scientists cannot afford to make mistakes.


There should be water; there could be ice

Don McCoy, European Space Agency
Two Mars missions have been lost in recent years - Nasa's $125m Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999 and its Mars Polar Lander, which disappeared on the Martian surface a few months later.

The European Space Agency is beginning a barrage of final tests to qualify its craft to enter space.

The manager of the assembly and testing phase of the mission, Don McCoy, says a crucial milestone was reached this week.

Flight tests

"As of [Tuesday], we have all the instruments on board the spacecraft," he told BBC News Online.

"We are just entering a very intensive phase of testing of the system to make sure the various elements of the spacecraft and the payloads are functioning properly together," he added.

Mars Express faces a whirlwind of tests to prepare it for its voyage to the Red Planet.

Mars Express (European Space Agency)
The structural model of the Mars Express spacecraft
Environmental testing - when the whole spacecraft is put into a large vacuum chamber - will begin in August.

This will be followed by various thermal, vibration and acoustic experiments.

Don McCoy told BBC News Online: "It's a very intensive business to ensure the whole spacecraft is ready for the flight."

He was speaking at the Farnborough Air Show, where further details of the Mars Express mission were revealed.

Close approach

The spacecraft is due to be shipped to the Baikonur launch pad in Kazakhstan in mid-February next year.

But there is another crucial deadline to be met before then. Beagle 2, the lander built by a team led by Dr Colin Pillinger of the Open University, UK, must be moved to continental Europe for testing.

"Dr Pillinger promised that this is still the agreed date and we look forward to seeing the lander actually on the spacecraft on 15 January," says McCoy.

Mars Express
Mission cost: 167m euros
Launch date: 23 May 2003
Arrival: December 2003
Life time: 1-2 Martian years (687-1,374 Earth days)
Mars Express will take advantage of Earth's closest approach to Mars for three years to leave our planet.

Launching then cuts both the journey time and the amount of fuel required for the voyage.

The trip to the Red Planet will take six months. When the craft enters the Martian orbit, it will use its seven instruments to probe the fourth planet's composition and atmosphere.

Don McCoy says the space craft will be able to detect signs of water up to a few kilometres underground.

"There should be water; there could be ice," he told BBC News Online.

See also:

23 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
05 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
28 May 02 | Science/Nature
10 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
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