An artist's rendition of the Mars Express spacecraft approaching Mars. The round, copper-colored object near the top of the spacecraft is the Beagle 2 lander.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy European Space Agency (ESA) - Illustration by Medialab
Overview of the Mars Express Mission
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.
One of the orbiter's main purposes is to search for water beneath the
surface of Mars using a radar system called MARSIS (Mars Advanced
Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding). Scientists are very curious
as to whether there might be life
on Mars, and water deposits are a good
place to look for living creatures. The surface of Mars is too cold and
dry for water, but there may be water
underground in aquifers. The Mars
Express orbiter will also take high-resolution images to map Mars, will
study the atmosphere of Mars, and will produce maps of the distribution
of minerals on the surface of Mars.
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 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.
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