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Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 00:32 GMT
'The hair-raising ride to space'
Mars Express with sun simulation (European Space Agency)
The craft is being tested in Toulouse, France
Europe's first voyage to the Red Planet is due to leave Earth next year for a Christmas rendezvous. The European Space Agency's Don McCoy explains the tests needed to prepare the craft for its hazardous journey in the first of a series of diaries for BBC News Online.

What we're mainly busy with this month is the very important Thermal Balance / Thermal Vacuum test.

In this test, we subject the satellite to a simulated space vacuum and to extreme hot and cold.

The aim is to prove the satellite's ability to withstand the gruelling thermal environment during the mission.

The vibration tests will verify that the satellite can withstand the hair-raising ride to space on-board the Soyuz rocket

Don McCoy, Mars Express Assembly Integration and Verification Engineer
The test lasts about two weeks. It's quite tough on the teams because they have to work 24 hours a day to ensure the safety of the satellite and to perform the necessary operations.

As regards the people working here, there are about 50 of us, in various teams. Some do rotating 12-hour shifts, some 8-hour shifts.

Maybe you're wondering how I stay awake at the end of such long shifts? I drink lots of coffee and try to stay focussed on my work. I have to admit about 4 am, I'm usually quite tired and I need to move in order to stay awake. I think we're all anticipating the end of the test now.

Enormous effort

Of course, we've had some problems; you often do in such complex tests as these. However, in each case, the teams have worked together to resolve them.

Mars Express team (European Space Agency)
Sleepless nights for the team
Presently we're proceeding on schedule. It has been an enormous effort to prepare and conduct the test, and we'll be glad to finish it. However, I think we can be quite proud of how well things have gone.

After completion of the thermal test, we prepare the spacecraft for vibration testing. We add special instrumentation and complete the building of the satellite by attaching the High Gain Antenna, the Beagle II lander simulator, and the Solar Arrays.

We'll test the mechanical behaviour of the flight spacecraft. In this way, the vibration tests will verify that the satellite can withstand the hair-raising ride to space on board the Soyuz rocket.

Images courtesy of the European Space Agency.

See also:

25 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
18 Sep 02 | Science/Nature
11 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
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