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EU: European Space Agency's 'Beagle 2' Spacecraft Set To Sniff Out Life On Mars

By Margot Buff

An unmanned mission to Mars is set to launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan later today. The launch represents two landmarks. Not only is this the first interplanetary mission for the European space program, but it is also the most thorough search to date to find signs of life on the red planet.

Prague, 2 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Europe's first mission to Mars is set to blast off today.

At 18:45 Prague time, if all goes as planned, the European Space Agency's (ESA) "Mars Express" orbiter will lift off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz-Fregat booster rocket for a rare exploration of the red planet.

In fact, the launch is the first European mission to any planet. And the main spacecraft, the "Mars Express," is itself carrying a passenger -- the "Beagle 2," a smaller landing craft with a unique objective.

Derek Pullan, the head of instrumentation for the "Beagle 2," says, "The primary objective of the mission is to identify life -- whether it's active, or whether there are any chemical signatures to indicate there has been life in the past."

The British-built craft is named after the ship that Charles Darwin sailed in 1831 on the exploration on which he began to formulate his theory of evolution. But it's also, of course, a breed of dog, and when the "Beagle 2" lands on the surface of Mars, Pullan says, it will soon start sniffing and pawing for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Only three missions have managed to land successfully on the surface of Mars -- NASA's twin "Viking" landers in 1976 and NASA's "Mars Pathfinder" in 1997. No one knows for sure if there are, or ever have been, living organisms on Earth's neighbor. Pullan says the "Beagle's" goal is to find evidence of microscopic creatures -- past or present -- by analyzing chemicals in the atmosphere and soil of Mars.

"We'll take soil samples from below the surface and then analyze them in the isotopic chemistry laboratory on board the lander," Pullan says. "We're equipped with all sorts of camera systems and spectrometers to look at mineralogy, to look at elements in the rocks and soils, so it's a complete suite of instrumentation, to avoid any ambiguity."

The "Beagle 2" is equipped to sniff out methane, a gas commonly produced by living things on Earth, the presence of which scientists believe would also indicate life on Mars.

Meanwhile, the "Mars Express" will remain in orbit, scanning the surface of the planet in greater detail than ever before. It will also use powerful radar to look below the surface to determine the makeup of the planet's crust. As the "Beagle 2" looks for signs of life, the "Mars Express" will look for water, the environment believed necessary for life to form. Mars is known to have ice crystals in its atmosphere and crust, but whether water has ever existed there in liquid form is not known.

Colin Pillinger, the lead scientist for the "Beagle 2," says there is compelling evidence that both water and life have existed on Mars.

"We have been working on Martian meteorites for a number of years now, and we've been able to demonstrate that these are rocks that were blasted off Mars. We quite clearly see the evidence of water, and we quite clearly see the minerals deposited from water on Mars. In fact, those minerals have organic matter in them," Pillinger says.

But Pillinger says organic matter found on meteorites is not conclusive evidence of life on Mars. The debate has been raging for years, with skeptics claiming that Mars meteorites found on Earth could have been contaminated with local organic material.

Within a week of the launch of the ESA's "Mars Express," NASA is scheduled to launch its own Mars mission, also an unmanned craft designed to explore the planet's surface. Then, just a few weeks later, NASA will send up a second Mars mission. All three spacecraft are due to reach their destination at the end of December. And a Japanese mission, already in space but facing technical difficulties, is expected to move into a Mars orbit by January.

The close timing is not the result of an international race for a presence on Mars. Rather, it's interplanetary coordination that makes the many missions possible. Over the next few months, Mars will be closer to Earth than at any time in the previous 60,000 years, enabling each of the Mars missions to save vast amounts of fuel, money, and time.

Pillinger says the several Mars missions are complementary, not redundant. As the "Beagle 2" sniffs for signs of life and the "Mars Express" scans the surface from high above, NASA's two rovers will explore different locations on the surface, working to map the planet's geology and history.

Moreover, the relationship between NASA and the younger ESA is marked more by cooperation than competition. The ESA drew on some of NASA's proven technologies to develop a relatively cheap, small lander that could hitch a ride on the "Mars Express." It also received NASA's support for its search for life, a quest NASA is not attempting on this trip.

If the "Beagle 2" mission proves a success -- which may not mean the discovery of life on Mars, but simply an unimpaired launch, landing, and search -- it could mean a bright future for European space exploration.

"There is a much bigger program which could follow this, which could stretch out into the next 20 years. It would have more robotic missions, sample return [spacecraft bringing samples from Mars back to Earth]. It could even ultimately mean people going to Mars in perhaps 2025," Pillinger says.

But, Pillinger adds, if the "Beagle 2" does find evidence of life on Mars, that landmark discovery could change the course of scientific investigation.

"The whole project, the whole philosophy, might change if we found life on Mars. We would have to take that into account. It would be criminal to disturb the Martian ecosystem, or would be equally devastating if we brought Martian biology back to Earth," he says.

That possibility is a long way off. This year's mission may not manage to find any conclusive evidence for or against the existence of life on Mars. And before the "Beagle 2" can start hunting its quarry, it faces a series of challenges that Pillinger describes as a kind of sporting event, in which technical misfortune is a daunting opponent.

"The launch is only the semi-final. Entry, descent, and landing is the semi-final, and when we get on the surface of Mars and do the science, that's the final. There's a long way to go yet," Pillinger says.

That journey -- all 400 million kilometers of it -- starts today on the launch pad at Baikonur.