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Wednesday, 25 December, 2002, 08:17 GMT
Europe's ascent on Mars
Beagle 2 (AFP)
Mars: What will Beagle 2 find?

A year from now, a European spacecraft should arrive at the Red Planet. Mars Express will orbit the fourth planet and drop off a robot to explore its rocky red surface. BBC News Online talks to David Southwood, director of science at the European Space Agency (Esa), about the mission.

This time next Christmas, a small robot, built in Britain, should be exploring the rocky surface of Mars.

It will be digging into the red soil and "sniffing" the Martian atmosphere in search of signs that perhaps life existed there.

Every question about Mars starts with the fact that Mars could have been like the Earth

David Southwood
Images and data will be sent up to the main spacecraft, the European Space Agency's Mars Express probe, as it orbits overhead.

If all goes to plan, we will learn more about a planet that has intrigued humanity since ancient times.

For Professor David Southwood, who heads Esa's science programme, they will be heady times.

Search for water

He told BBC News Online: "We're targeting looking for sub-surface water from Mars Express.

Mars Express
Mars Express is Europe's first mission to the Red Planet
"We're sending up a radar which can, so to speak, 'see' under the surface of the planet.

"We believe water was there on Mars - where did it go? It's important to find out where it is and how it got there.

"For me, every question about Mars starts with the fact that Mars could have been like the Earth and so wherever you look at something that has happened on Mars, you think there but for fortune could have gone Earth.

"And so it's extraordinarily important to understand where things went wrong on Mars as much as simply to make discoveries."

Close encounter

Mars Express is taking advantage of the planet's closest approach to Earth for 17 years in August 2003.

By having the close encounter while Mars Express is on its journey, the spacecraft will take the shortest possible route.

The US space agency (Nasa) is also using the opportunity to send two rovers to Mars.

The Nasa vehicles should arrive at the Red Planet shortly after Mars Express and will drop down on to the surface in much the same way as the European lander.

This is Beagle 2, a small suite of instruments built by a team led by Colin Pillinger of the Open University, UK.

Political message

Professor Southwood sees it very much as a British-led project aided by Europe.

Image of water on Mars
Ice shows up blue on the gamma-ray spectrometer
"I think, just as a political point, it could mark the UK's step back into the centre stage by landing something on Mars," he said.

"It's hitching a ride on a European spacecraft and a great deal of European effort has been spent in making sure that it can go.

"The question it is asking is, is there organic material on the surface?

"Certainly, it would be absolutely fascinating to see traces of something that you could link either to the support of life or indeed to life itself.

"Nothing like that has been put on the surface, hitherto. It is unique in that respect. I suspect if it is successful it will be immediately followed up."

Launch date

The Mars Express spacecraft is currently undergoing final testing to prepare it for the extreme ride into and through space.

Beagle 2 is being shipped out to the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan.

The orbiter, with the lander on the side, is scheduled to be launched on board a Soyuz Fregat Launcher in June 2003.

See also:

13 Dec 02 | Science/Nature
23 Sep 02 | Science/Nature
18 Sep 02 | Science/Nature
25 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
27 May 02 | Science/Nature
20 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
13 Sep 00 | Festival of science
05 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
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