Mars Express - Beagle 2 Lander
The European Space Agency (ESA) launched a mission to Mars called "Mars Express" in June of 2003. The Mars Express spacecraft has two parts: an orbiter that will circle Mars for at least one Martian year (687 Earth days), and a lander named "Beagle 2" which is scheduled to touch down on the surface of the Red Planet on December 25, 2003.
Beagle 2 was ejected from the main Mars Express spacecraft on December 19, 2003. The lander has a heat shield to protect it during its fiery entry into the Martian atmosphere. Parachutes will slow its descent and inflatable airbags will cushion its landing. The Beagle 2 lander looks like a large pocket watch (about a meter, or three feet, in diameter) before it is deployed. Once safely nestled on the surface, Beagle 2 will unfold itself. It has several solar panels to supply it with electrical power, and a robotic arm to collect and analyze soil samples.
Beagle 2 will land at a site named "Isidis Planitia" just north of the Martian equator. Isidis Planitia is a flat plain within an ancient impact crater that may once have contained a lake. The main chore of the Beagle 2 is to search for signs of life. Beagle 2 is not a rover, so it will only be able to examine the ground immediately around its landing site. It will scoop up samples of soil with a Position Adjustable Workbench (PAW) at the end of its robotic arm and chemically analyze those samples. Scientists hope Beagle 2 will find compounds that indicate the presence of living organisms. They will also analyze the mineral contents of the soil samples. ESA mission planners hope that Beagle 2 will be able to survive and conduct investigations on Mars for about six months.
Beagle's PAW includes a pair of stereo cameras to take pictures of the lander's surroundings, a microscope, two spectrometers (Mössbauer and X-ray) that will determine the mineral and elemental compositions of rocks, and a light. The PAW also houses a grinder that will remove the weathered surfaces of rocks to allow study of their more pristine interiors and a "mole" that can dig beneath the surface and return soil samples for analysis.
Beagle 2 is named after the ship, the H.M.S. Beagle, which Charles Darwin sailed on shortly before he wrote his famous book about evolution and natural selection titled "On the Origin of Species". Darwin's book had a tremendous impact on our understanding of living creatures and profoundly influenced the science of biology. The scientists who planned the Mars Express mission hope to find signs of life on Mars, which would also be an important breakthrough in biology, so they named their lander after Darwin's ship.