Mars Express Partially Covers Mars Climate Orbiter Science Gap; Beagle 2 Gets a Green Light.

By Keith Cowing
November 14, 1999
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Mars Express

[14 November 1999] ESA’s Science Program Committee held a meeting on 9 – 10 November wherein the Mars Express mission’s payload was reviewed. This review considered two additions to the mission. These additions were incorporated, in part, to help the science community achieve some of the goals set for the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) which crashed into Mars in September.

The new mission features are: an additional Infrared channel for the SPICAM, a UV and IR Atmospheric Spectrometer, which should help achieve some of MCO’s goals; and a Super Resolution Channel (SRC), to be added to the HRSC, High-resolution Stereo Color Imager. This feature will, according to ESA “allow the collection of images at unprecedented resolution.”

The developers of the Mars Express lander, more popularly known as “Beagle 2“, now expect that their project will be riding aboard the Mars Express spacecraft as it departs Earth for Mars in the Spring of 2003. Beagle 2 is named in honor of the research ship that carried naturalist Charles Darwin around the world in the 1830’s. Like its predecessor, Beagle 2 seeks to look for life – in this case, past or present life on the surface of Mars.

After successfully passing both its Systems Engineering Review by ESA and its Preliminary Design Review by the ESA Technical Centre (ESTEC), recommendations made for Beagle 2 went before ESA’s Science Program Committee for endorsement on November 10, 1999.

As a result of a review by ESA, it was decided that the Beagle 2 was, according to an ESA press release, “considered sufficently mature,
both technically and financially, to commence Phase C/D in January 2000.” The news was received earlier than the planned date of February 2000. Again, according to ESA ” as a consequence, the development of the entire Mars Express payload, Orbiter and Lander, can proceed in full harmony. “

Beagle 2 Lands on MarsBeagle’s road to Mars has been a rather arduous one. Over the course of the past several years, the design of this rover has undergone drastic revisions resulting in a package that weighs 60 Kg – down from an original envelope of 90 Kg. None the less, much in the same spirit as the developers of the Viking Lander life detection experiments a generation ago, the Beagle team has found ingenious ways to cram entire laboratories into incredibly small volumes.

Its landing cushioned by three air bags reminiscent of Mars Pathfinder, Beagle 2 will unfold is circular solar panels and get down to work.

The Beagle 2 LanderRocks will be collected by the Beagle’s robot arm for analysis. The Beagle’s miniature laboratory will check for the existence of organic matter, water, and minerals deposited in the presence of standing water. This analysis will be performed with a mass spectrometric gas analysis system. Samples will be obtained by use of a small drill which will remove outer layers from rocks to get at material that has not been exposed to the harsh Martian surface.

A Mossbauer spectrometer will be used to perform a mineralogical analysis of rocks so as to gain an understanding of just how thick the highly oxidized outer layer of Mars’ surface actually is.

The Beagle also has a gas analysis system that will be used to perform soil analyses on samples collected by the “Mole”. The Mole is a small device capable of crawling across and burrowing into the uppermost surface, collecting samples along the way.

The atmosphere of Mars will also be examined. Sensors will be in place to detect trace gases such as Methane which can be indicative of biological activity.

With many of the technical and engineering hurdles now out of the way, the one daunting task still lying ahead is generating the money to make this all happen. In addition to shaving weight wherever possible, the Beagle 2 team has also had to fight for the funds needed to build and integrate it into the Mars Express mission – a mission that is designed to go with – or without Beagle 2 if need be. A partnership has been developed between Beagle’s main sponsor, the Planetary Sciences Research Institute at the Open University, and a variety of public and private sector partners which seems to be moving closer to obtaining the needed funding commitments to guarantee Beagle’s place on the mission.

While the funds have yet to be fully raised, the Beagle team seems confident that the money will be found.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.