Britain hopes to become the third country in the world -- after the United States and the former Soviet Union -- to land a spacecraft on another planet. The British-built "Beagle 2" -- a part of Europe's first mission to the red planet -- is due to touch down on the Martian surface on 25 December.
London, 23 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It is a capsule of less than 1 meter in diameter and weighing just under 70 kilograms, and it is now hurtling toward Mars at some 19,000 kilometers per hour.
If all goes according to plan, the British-built spacecraft will land on the rock-strewn surface of the red planet early on 25 December, dangling from parachutes and encased in giant airbags to break its fall.
The "Beagle 2" -- named after the ship on which naturalist Charles Darwin sailed -- is an important part of the European Space Agency's first mission to Mars. The probe successfully separated from a mother craft named "Mars Express" on 19 December, after a flight of six months and 400 million kilometers.
The aim of Europe's ambitious program is to search Mars's soil for signs of past or present life. "Beagle 2" is the first of three spacecraft with similar missions due to touch down on the planet's surface in the next few weeks.
Colin Hicks is director-general of the British National Space Centre. He explains the challenges that face "Beagle 2" as it enters the Martian atmosphere.
"We have got a period in which we are out of contact with 'Beagle 2.' It is not sending us any signals. It's going to be an exceptionally nerve-racking time. It's got to go down through the atmosphere. Its heat shield has got to work perfectly. Its parachutes have got to open perfectly. It air bags have got to work perfectly. It's got to drop on to the surface without breaking. It's got to open, its solar panels have got to deploy. It's got to accumulate the energy into its batteries and send its signal back. And until all that has happened, we'll hear nothing more," Hicks said.
Rather strangely, the first thing that scientists back on Earth hope to hear from Mars is a radio call sign composed by the British rock group Blur. It is hoped that American technicians monitoring the orbiting "Mars Odyssey" spacecraft, which will be passing overhead, will pick up "Beagle 2's" first signs of success:
"The signal that we'll get back from the surface of Mars is going to come through the 'Mars Odyssey' probe, which is run by [the U.S. space agency] NASA, and it is going to be carrying the British pop tune composed by Blur. It's going to be the first signal that we are going to get. We sometimes joke here that other people want to bring rock back from the surface of Mars to analyze it. We are sending rock to Mars -- Blur rock," Hicks said.
Hicks says "Beagle 2's" array of miniaturized experiments include stereo TV cameras, a microscope, two sampling devices, including a mole-like underground probe, and a mini-laboratory that should be able to detect methane, a tell-tale sign of microscopic life.
Hicks says he's proud of the media attention the "Beagle 2" has received -- including huge headlines in British newspapers proclaiming "Mars, Here We Come." But he's also quick to praise the mission's international component.
"Everyone in Britain is on the edges of their seat with pride about this spacecraft. It is about 90 percent British-built. But there are some instruments from other countries across Europe, and we would not be getting to Mars, if it weren't for the fact that 'Mars Express,' the European Space Agency mission, is carrying 'Beagle 2,'" Hicks said.
Clive Simpson is the editor of "Spaceflight," the journal of the British Interplanetary Society. He points out that "Beagle 2's" exploration of the surface will be accompanied by a detailed mapping of the planet from orbit by "Mars Express." The orbiting spacecraft also will use radar technology in an effort to detect underground water or ice, which is known to exist on Mars.
Simpson also praises the efforts of British science. "Really, 'Beagle 2' is a tribute to British tenacity and ingenuity, especially through professor Colin Pillinger [of Britain's Open University], who has really been the driving force behind this whole project, right from the very early days, when he came up with the initial idea, through to all the fund-raising and making sure that all the technical components pull together and work into this very small, very compact, very light-weight spacecraft that contains lot of potential, really, for future exploration of Mars," Simpson said.
Simpson notes that "Beagle 2" is due to be joined on the surface of Mars by two U.S. robotic roving vehicles -- "Spirit" and "Opportunity" -- in January. He says he's disappointed over the recent failure of a Japanese probe that was to have studied Mars and its moons from orbit.
Indeed, Simpson points out that sending spacecraft to either orbit or land on Mars is not easy. Out of 32 missions, only nine have been successful.
If evidence of microscopic life is found on Mars, Simpson predicts exploration will be stepped up, including manned flights -- "perhaps within 15 years."
As for "Beagle 2," he is already in a celebratory mood, despite the challenges that still lie ahead. "We are very proud of the fact that Britain is really going to become the third nation to actually land a craft on a planet in the solar system, and we've already began to celebrate," Simpson said.