Exploring the Red Planet
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Mars Express and Beagle 2...
Europe keeps a sharp eye on Mars
Background on Mars Express and Beagle 2 »
For the first time, Europe has a spacecraft orbiting Mars. The European Space Agency launched its Mars Express probe with a piggyback lander, Beagle 2, on June 2, 2003. Beagle 2 separated from Mars Express on December 19, 2003, and began its plunge down to the martian surface in search of evidence of past or present life. Beagle 2 has not been heard from since December 25, 2003. Meanwhile, Mars Express arrived safely in orbit over Mars on December 25, 2003. Since then, from its orbit high above the planet, Mars Express has been searching for water, ice and chemicals buried under the Martian surface.

European Space Agency artist's conception of Mars Express above the Red Planet
A European Space Agency artist imagines how the unmanned Mars Express orbiter looks high above the planet. The probe arrived over the Red Planet on December 25, 2003. Looking down from the martian sky, it is searching for water, ice and chemicals buried under the planet surface.
click image to enlarge - ESA

Mars Express photos of the South Pole ice cap
Mars Express looked down on the ice cap covering the planet's South Pole. The photo at left is water ice. The middle image is carbon dioxide ice. The picture at right is visible light.
click image to enlarge - ESA

Mars Express photos of the South Pole ice cap
Mars Express photographed Olympus Mons, the highest volcano in our Solar System. The mountain is nearly 15 miles high and the caldera seen here is almost two miles deep. This 63 mile wide view was recorded from an altitude of 170 miles.
click image to enlarge - ESA

Mars Express photo of of Valles Marineris, the Grand Canyon of Mars
Mars Express snapped a spectacular stereo color picture from 170 miles above the surface of a 1,000 mile long by 40 mile wide swath of Valles Marineris, the so-called Grand Canyon of Mars.
click image to enlarge - ESA

Mars Express photo of of Reull Vallis
Mars Express recorded a 62-mile-wide swath of the Reull Vallis east of the Hellas basin. The valley may have been carved in the ground by flowing water.
click image to enlarge - ESA

Mars Express photo of of Hecates Tholus volcano
Mars Express photographed the summit of 3.29-mile-high Hecates Tholus volcano. The caldera is more than six miles across.
click image to enlarge - ESA

Mars Express photo of the Claritas Fossae region of the Red Planet
Mars Express photographed the ancient deformed Claritas Fossae region of the Red Planet.
click image to enlarge - ESA

European Space Agency artist's conception of the Mars Express Beagle 2 Lander on the Red Planet
An ESA artist imagines how the lost Beagle 2 might have looked after a proper landing on the Red Planet
click image to enlarge - ESA

European Space Agency artist's conception of the Mars Express orbiter above the Red Planet
An ESA artist imagines how the Mars Express orbiter looks above the Red Planet
click image to enlarge - ESA

Late news from ESA »

Mars Express images »

News about Beagle 2 »

CREDITS: Images and illustrations have been supplied by the international partners in the Mars Express project:
European Space Agency (ESA)
Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI)
British National Space Centre (BNSC)
Centre National des Etudes Spatiales (CNES)
Deutschland für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR)
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
Nat'l Aeronautics and Space Admin. (NASA)

Current Events at Mars

» November 30, 2005: The MARSIS radar on board Mars Express has suggested the possibility of deep underground water ice on the Red Planet. MARSIS is short for Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding. Previously, the area beneath the surface of Mars had been unexplored. But, in summer 2005, MARSIS revealed a 155-mile-wide circular structure at a depth of 0.9 to 1.5 miles under the surface of the northern lowlands in the Chryse Planitia region at Mars' mid-latitudes. Scientists have interpreted the structure as a buried impact basin. They wonder if it could contain a thick layer of water ice. Could there be other hidden impact craters elsewhere on the planet?

At the same time, the OMEGA instrument aboard Mars Express has found indications that substantial quantities of liquid water may have been present on the early Mars. OMEGA is short for Observatoire pour la Mineralogy, l'Eau, les Glaces et l'Activité – a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer.

Scientists have suggested that clay-rich phyllosilicate deposits uncovered by OMEGA may have been formed by alteration of surface materials in the very earliest times of Mars. The altered material then may have been buried by subsequent lava flows. Later, the buried material may have been exposed by erosion or excavated by meteorite impacts.

The clays probably formed during an intense cratering period in Mars' early history known as the Noachian Era. That time period lasted from from the planet's birth around 4.5 billion years ago to about 3.8 billion years ago. The Noachian era is the first and most ancient of the three geological eras on Mars.

An active hydrological system must have been present on ancient Mars to account for the large amounts of clays that OMEGA observed. The long-term contact with liquid water that led to the clay formation could have happened in a warm climate on the surface of Mars. On the other hand, the clays could have been formed by the action of water in a warm, thin crust. The sulphate deposits spotted by OMEGA would have been formed after the clays. Sulphates do not have to be in liquid water for a very long time, although water must be there and it must be acidic.
Picture: Mars Express evidence for large aquifers on early Mars »

» February 25, 2005: The Mars Express high-resolution stereo camera has photographed water ice, glaciers, dust and volcanoes at the planet's north pole. Cliffs more than a mile high encompass fields of dark volcanic ash. Scientists wonder if the fields of volcanic cones, up to 1,800 feet tall, indicate very recent volcanic activity.
Picture: north pole ice and dust »

» February 23, 2005: Using its high-resolution stereo camera, Mars Express has recorded evidence of a five-million-year-old frozen sea near the planet's equator. Looking something like an Antarctic ice pack on Earth, the flat dust-covered plain, Elysium Planum, has an average depth of about 150 feet. Similar in size to Earth's North Sea, the Martian sea measures about 500 by 560 miles. The plain is covered with irregular blocky shapes that look like rafts of fragmented ice off the coast of Antarctica on Earth. The Elysium Planum ice is prevented from evaporating by a covering layer of volcanic ash. Meanwhile, the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer aboard Mars Express has reported methane and water vapor in the atmosphere above Elysium Planum. That may be a sign of life if the methane has been produced by a biological process in liquid water under the ice.
Picture: frozen sea »

» January 5, 2005: Mars Express, ESA¹s first mission to Mars, has been working in orbit around the Red Planet for a year. It arrived there December 25, 2003, and switched on its first science instrument on January 5, 2004. The spacecraft settled into its final Mars orbit on January 28, 2004. Since then, Mars Express has been producing stunning results.
  • One of the missions priorities was the discovery of water in one of its chemical states. OMEGA, the combined camera and infrared spectrometer aboard Mars Express, found it in the planet's south polar ice cap on January 18.
  • That water ice and carbon dioxide ice was confirmed by PFS, a high-resolution spectrometer, which also revealed the carbon oxide distribution is different in the northern and southern hemispheres of Mars.
  • The MaRS radio transmitter and receiver emitted its first signal on January 21. That transmission was reflected and scattered from the surface of Mars and then received on Earth by a 230-ft.-wide dish antenna in Australia. That measurement technique is used by scientists to see the chemical composition of Mars' atmosphere, ionosphere and surface.
  • ASPERA, a plasma and energetic neutral atoms analyzer that checks whether solar wind erosion led to the present lack of water on Mars, found a difference between the impact of the solar wind area and a measurement in the tail of Mars.
  • The SPICAM, an ultraviolet and infrared spectrometer, simultaneously measured the distribution of ozone and water vapor and discovered there is more water vapour where there is less ozone.
  • The High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) provided the most visual excitement during Mars Express' first year over the Red Planet. The camera recorded the longest swath – up to 250 miles – and largest area in combination with high resolution ever taken in the exploration of the Solar System. That made it possible to print out a picture 80 ft. long by 4 ft. high.
Picture: World's Largest Postcard »

» December 22, 2004: The walls of Candor Chasma, one of the largest canyons in the Valles Marineris system. Traces of erosion in the canyon walls is similar to erosion in arid or alpine regions of Earth.
Picture: Candor Chasma »

» November 17, 2004: Coprates Catena, in the southern part of the Valles Marineris canyon system, is a chain of collapsed structures parallel to the main valley Coprates Chasma. The structures vary between 1.5 and 2 miles deep. That is a good deal less than the depth of the main valley at 5 miles deep.
Picture: Coprates Catena »

» November 11, 2004: An image of the Martian moon Phobos recorded by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on Mars Express is Europe¹s highest-resolution picture so far of the Red Planet's natural satellite. The image of the side of the moon facing Mars was taken from a distance of less than 125 miles with a resolution of about 23 feet per pixel. Mars Express periodically passes near Phobos as it swoops close to the Martian surface, just above the atmosphere. The orbiting spacecraft turns away from the surface of Mars for a moment to train its camera on Phobos.
Picture: Phobos »

» November 3, 2004: ithonium Chasma and Ius Chasma in the western end of Valles Marineris, a giant canyon 2,500 miles long, up to 150 miles wide and up to 4 miles deep. The canyon system is one of the major keys to the tectonic and volcanic history of Mars and the Valles Marineris region is one of the most studied areas on the planet.
Picture: Tithonium Chasma »

» June 2004: Crater Hale on the the northern rim of the Argyre basin in the southern hemisphere of Mars.
Picture: Crater Hale »

» June 2004: The eastern rim of the Martian impact crater Huygens, an impact structure, about 280 miles wide, in the southern highlands of Mars. Counting craters counts on the rim indicates that Huygens Crater is almost 4000 million years old. That means the basin was formed in the early history of Mars and underwent heavy bombardment during the first 500 million years of the planet¹s lifetime.
Picture: Huygens Crater »

» June 2004: Claritas Fossae tectonic grabens on the Solis Planum plains. The smooth plain is peppered with impact craters and material excavated from the craters. A graben forms when a block of a planet¹s crust drops down between two faults. Grabens are often seen together horsts, which are upthrown blocks lying between two steep-angled fault blocks.
Picture: Claritas Fossae grabens »

» May 2004: The channels of Reull Vallis in the southern hemisphere of Mars. Reull Vallis is an outflow channel that extends more than 900 miles across Promethei Terra in the direction of Hellas Basin. It is some 12 miles wide and has cut more than a mile down into the surrounding plain.
Picture: Reull Vallis »

» May 2004: The smooth surface of the Promethei Terra in the southern highlands of Mars is caused by a thick layer of dust or volcanic ash that has covered all landforms. Even young impact craters have lost their contours due to in-fill and collapse of their fragile crater walls. This layer has been removed by the wind at some ridges and crater walls.
Picture: Promethei Terra »

» May 24, 2004: British scientists want to send another Beagle lander to Mars, in 2007. The first British lander – known as Beagle 2 – had been transported to Mars piggyback on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. Unfortunately, Beagle 2 disappeared as it descended to the martian surface on December 25, 2003. It has not been heard from since, despite attempts by Mars orbiters and radiotelescopes on Earth to pick up Beagle's radio signals, and attempts from orbit above Mars to photograph the lander on the surface. The Beagle 2 lander was the conception of Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences, and others at the Open University in Great Britain. He named it Beagle after the ship in which Charles Darwin formulated his ideas about evolution while sailing around the world in the 1830s. Beagle 2 was intended to settle some of the questions about whether life ever existed on the Red Planet. Lessons learned from the failed Beagle 2 flight will lead to improvements in Beagle 3, including a transmitter for tracking the lander as it descends and reception of that radio signal by a Mars satellite. Other changes would place the radio antenna on the outside of the lander and use of a shock-reducing airbag that would not bounce. During the planned Beagle 2 landing sequence, the lander would have been upside down and folded in when it touched down. After landing, a lid was to have opened and solar arrays were to have folded out, and only then would the communications antenna have been exposed for transmitting. A Beagle 3 flight in 2007 would precede two rover missions in 2009 carrying instruments similar to Beagle's.
Picture: British artist concept of Beagle 2 on Mars »

» April 2004: Ophir Chasma is a northern part of the Valles Marineris, a huge canyon 2,500 miles long, up to 150 miles wide and up to 4 miles deep.
Picture: Ophir Chasma »

» April 21, 2004: Olympus Mons is an extraordinarily tall mountain. In fact, it is more than 16 miles tall. At about 88,000 feet in height, it is the highest volcano in our Solar System. Olympus Mons is so big that, if it were on Earth, its base would cover the entire state of New Mexico. Olympus Mons is three times as tall as the highest point on Earth, which is Mt. Everest. The volcano appears to have been dormant for eons. Olympus Mons is positioned in the Tharsis region of the Red Planet's western hemisphere. The Mars Express spacecraft, flying 170 miles overhead, photographed the western flank of the volcano. The steep slope on the flank at lower left is more than four miles above the martian plain. The broad plains west of the slope, at the top of the photo, are called aureole, from the Latin word for "circle of light." Aureole scenes north and west of the volcano feature gigantic ridges and blocks extending out more than 600 miles from the summit like flower petals. They may be the result of landslides or moving glaciers.
Picture: Olympus Mons aureole »
Picture: Olympus Mons caldera »
Picture: Olympus Mons on the plain »

» March 31, 2004: From 170 miles overhead, Mars Express used its High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) to photograph an area of Mars known as Claritas Fossae on Mars – an ancient deformed area in the crust of Mars west of Solis Planum, which itself is a deformed area with volcanos southeast of a group of volcanos called Tharsis.
Picture: Claritas Fossae region of Mars »

» March 30, 2004: Mars Express has seen methane in the martian atmosphere. The methane was found by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS), which detects molecules by analyzing their spectral fingerprints. Those fingerprints are measures of the way molecules absorb sunlight.

The amount of methane in the martian atmosphere is very small – about 10 parts in a billion. Scientists are wondering how the methane is generated. The gas may survive in the atmosphere only a few hundreds of years because it turns quickly to water and carbon dioxide. That tells scientists there must be some way the methane in the atmosphere is replenished.

Considering what happens on Earth, methane production on Mars might be linked to volcanos or water and steam trapped in fractured and porous rocks. On Earth, hydrothermal fluids are found from several hundred feet to several miles below the surface.

Alternatively, methane on Earth also is a by-product of biological activity, such as fermentation. That brings up the possibility of life. Biological sources of methane on Earth include fermentation in ruminant animals, anaerobic decay of organic material in rice paddies, and natural wetlands.

The orbiter is designed to study the chemical composition of the atmosphere, which is 95 percent percent carbon dioxide and 5 percent other gases. European scientists expect Mars Express to find oxygen, water, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde in the atmosphere. Those gases could tell a story about the presence of life at sometime in the past or present on the Red Planet.
Picture: an artist's idea of Mars Express in orbit »

» March 8, 2004: Europe's lost lander, Beagle 2, may or may not have turned up in an orbiter photo of the surface of the Red Planet. The British-built Mars lander had been transported to Mars piggyback on the Mars Express orbiter. Beagle 2 disappeared as it descended to the martian surface on December 25, 2003. It has not been heard from since, despite attempts to pick up its radio signals by Mars orbiters and radiotelescopes on Earth. The photograph of the area where Beagle 2 should have landed has been described as showing four bright spots, which some hope may be the remains of the lander's parachute and air bags. Others say the picture is not conclusive. Beagle 2 had been intended for a landing on Isidis Planitia, a countryside said to have some hills and craters, which could have made a safe landing difficult.
Picture: ESA artist concept of Beagle 2 airbags on Isidis Planitia »
Picture: ESA artist concept of how Beagle 2 should have looked »

» March 1, 2004: From 170 miles overhead, Mars Express used its High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) to photograph the summit of a 3.29-mile-high volcano known as Hecates Tholus. The image featured the six-mile-wide caldera, which is 1,969 feet deep. To descend from top to bottom, a walker would have to go down more than one-third of a mile. Hecates Tholus is the northernmost volcano of a group known as Elysium. The photo reveals multiple caldera collapses. Seen on the flanks of Hecates Tholus are several features related to the flow of lava including lines radiating outwards and pit chains.
Picture: Hecates Tholus volcano »

» February 19, 2004: Mars Express saw one of the largest outflow channels on Mars, the mouth of Kasei Vallis. ESA scientists said the channel may have been carved by glaciers or gigantic water outflows. The blackish-blue colour probably is sediment. The bright streaks may be the result of winds. The photo was recorded by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) from an altitude of 169 miles. The area in the image is about 81 miles wide. The photo illustrates the difficulty in capturing the true colors of Mars when dust and haze in the atmosphere influence the scene. The Kasei Valley region is a labyrinth of valleys and sand dunes on Mars' western hemisphere. Meanwhile, Mars Express used its OMEGA instrument to photograph the planet's north pole ice cap. Previously it had photographed the south pole ice cap.
Picture: Kasei Vallis »
Picture: north pole ice cap »
Picture: south pole ice cap »
Background: false colors »

» February 11, 2004: Mars Express photographed the highest volcano in our Solar System, Olympus Mons, on January 21, 2004. The mountain is nearly 15 miles high and the caldera at the top is almost two miles deep. The 63-mile-wide view was recorded from an altitude of 170 miles by the orbiter's High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC).
Picture: Olympus Mons caldera »

» January 27, 2004: The Beagle 2 lander has not phoned home so the European Space Agency is forming a board of inquiry to see how the lander came to be lost. The Beagle operations team will make a final effort to get the robot probe to talk back. They will send a command ordering Beagle 2 to reboot its computer. Unfortunately, they suggest that last ditch effort is unlikely to produce a positive result. The mission team remains sure that Beagle 2 hit its planned landing zone. They hope that eventually the powerful cameras aboard the American and European orbiters Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Express will spot remnants of Beagle 2 on the surface.

» January 26, 2004: A radio innovation occurred in the unsuccessful search for signals from Beagle 2. The Jodrell Bank Observatory developed a super-cooled receiver for its radio telescope facility near Manchester, England. The extraordinarily-sensitive receiver was used to listen for a Beagle 2 signal from Mars at a radio frequency near 401 MHz. A cooler receiver has less thermal noise making it more sensitive. The Jodrell Bank receiver's front end was cooled to 13 degrees above absolute zero. Its operators also used superconducting filters from the University of Birmingham to reject copious terrestrial interference found around that radio frequency. If there had been a signal from Beagle 2, the filters would have allowed it to be heard through interference. Jodrell Bank described the improved receiver as the best ever constructed in the world for that frequency.
Jodrell Bank Observatory »

» January 18, 2004: Mars Express mapped the planet's South Pole ice cap and recorded images of water ice and carbon dioxide ice using the orbiter's combined camera and infrared spectrometer. Looking down from its path across the martian sky, the robot probe is searching for water, ice and chemicals buried under the planet surface.
Picture: South Pole Ice Cap »

» January 15, 2004: From 170 miles overhead, the Mars Express orbiter photographed a 62-mile-wide swath of the Reull Vallis. The European Space Agency said the valley is a channel carved in the ground, probably by flowing water, east of the Hellas basin at 41° South and 101° East.
Picture: Reull Vallis »

» January 14, 2004: Mars Express recorded a spectacular stereo color picture from 170 miles above the surface of a 1,000 mile long by 40 mile wide swath of Valles Marineris, the so-called Grand Canyon of Mars.
Picture: Valles Marineris »

» January 13, 2004: Mars Express adjusted its path and entered its working polar orbit ranging from as low as 186 miles to as high as 6,835 miles above the planet. From there, the spacecraft will use a high resolution stereo camera to record detailed snapshots of the surface. It will be able to see objects on the surface as small as six to seven feet wide. Scientists on Earth will use data sent back by Mars Express to map the mineral composition of the surface, the composition and circulation of the atmosphere, and even the ground beneath the surface.

» January 12, 2004: Still no transmissions have been received from the Beagle 2 lander. There will be a listening opportunity over Isidis Planitia January 14 and one in February.

» January 10, 2004: Mars Express again passes over the area where Beagle 2 was supposed to land. From 195 miles above, it will listen for a beep-beep radio signal Beagle 2 is supposed to be transmitting. Mars Express also will listen above Isidis Planitia again on January 11, 12 and 14. So far, no transmissions have been received from the lander.

» January 7, 2004: As it flies just 233 miles above the intended landing site at Isidis Planitia at 1213 universal time today, Mars Express will send down a radio signal in the hope that the missing Beagle 2 will reply. Mars Express also will be above Beagle 2 sending down radio signals on January 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 14. During the January 9 pass, the orbiter's high-resolution stereo camera will be used to look for the missing lander's parachutes and airbags. Earlier attempts by the U.S. satellite Mars Odyssey and several radiotelescopes on Earth to hear signals from the lander turned up nothing. Possible explanations include problems with the lander's transmitter, receiver or software. Or, it may have been destroyed on landing.

» January 1, 2004: Mars Express is in orbit over Mars, but signals still have not been received from the Beagle 2 lander. America's twin exploration rovers are approaching the planet. Spirit is to land on January 3 and Opportunity on January 24, but they will not be near the Beagle site. Japan's Nozomi spacecraft had been unable to enter Mars orbit in December 2003 and flew on by the planet.
ESA Mars updates »

» December 30, 2003: The Mars Express flight control team at Darmstadt, Germany, used ESA's Deep Space Station in New Norcia, Australia, to maneuver the orbiter into a polar orbit around Mars. The orbiter will fly directly over the landing site at an altitude of 196 miles on January 7, 2004. The Beagle 2 landing site measures about 19 miles by 3 miles. Engineers hope the short distance between ground and orbiter and the ideal overhead position of the orbiter will increase the probability of hearing any Beagle 2 signals coming up from the ground.

» December 30, 2003: A sixth attempt to communicate with Beagle 2 via NASA'a Mars Odyssey orbiter turned up nothing. Powerful telescopes on Earth also found nothing.

» December 26, 2003: Twenty minutes after the 73-lb. Beagle 2 should have landed, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor snapped a picture of the landing site at Isidis Planitia, just north of the Martian equator. That photo revealed for the first time a 3,280-ft.-wide crater centered in the landing area. Could Beagle 2 have tumbled into the crater. If so, would its radio signal be blocked from Earth or would the small craft have been destroyed? Isidis Planitia had been selected because it seemed relatively safe. However, the ground around and inside the previously-unknown crater could be very rocky.

» December 25, 2003: Mars Express, Europe's main spacecraft in the current flotilla of probes from Earth to the Red Planet, arrived safely over Mars. From its orbit high above the planet, Mars Express will search for water, ice and chemicals buried under the Martian surface. Its equipment includes a stereo camera which could be used in a search for the missing Beagle 2's parachutes and airbags. Mars Express eventually will be in position to listen for Beagle 2 transmissions from the surface. Mars Express joined NASA'a Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor in orbit above the planet.

» December 25, 2003: The British lander Beagle 2 may have reached the surface of Mars, but no signals were received as researchers methodically searched for transmissions from the tiny craft. The Mars Odyssey orbiter above Mars heard no signals from the surface on Beagle's assigned frequency. Neither did the 250-foot dish antenna of the Lovell Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, UK, nor the large radiotelescope at Stanford University in California. Engineers on Earth were unable to say whether the soft landing technology failed. If it did, the Beagle 2 may have broken apart while penetrating the Martian atmosphere or in a hard landing. On the other hand, it might have landed in good condition, but in the wrong place. Or, Beagle 2's clam-like lid might not have opened on the ground or its radio antenna might be pointing the wrong way. Or, a computer glitch could have changed the clock which switches its transmitter on and off to the wrong time. That could result in researchers listening for a signal at the wrong time. If it did land safely, Beagle 2's automated systems could survive for weeks or months.

» December 19, 2003: The British lander Beagle 2 successfully separated from the Mars Express main spacecraft and began its plunge down to the martian surface in search of evidence of past or present life. Beagle 2 was ferried 62 million miles from Earth by Europe's Mars Express spacecraft. The small lander, characterized by one news agency as the size of an open umbrella, disembarked from its bus on December 19 and flew off on its own toward the Red Planet where it is to land by parachute on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, Mars Express continued on toward its own orbit above Mars.


Mars Express and Beagle 2

Photo of Mars by a U.S. spacecraft
NASA image of areas of Mars
[click image to enlarge]
What Happened to Beagle 2? »»
Photographing Earth »»
Mars Express Science »»
Is There Life on Mars? »»
Mars Express is Europe's first solo mission to the Red Planet, part of the new golden age of Mars exploration.

The launch. The European Space Agency launched the Mars Express probe with its piggyback lander on June 2, 2003, on a six-month journey to Mars. It took off on a Soyuz-Fregat rocket from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Fregat rocket was launched slightly off-target to avoid its upper stage ending up on Mars. Along the way, Mars Express separated from the rocket to fly on its own. The spacecraft is under the control of ESA's Operations Centre (ESOC) at Darmstadt, Germany.

Interplanetary cruise. Mars Express used a sensor to lock onto the Sun, then unfurl its solar arrays so it could generate electricity to send a message back to Earth. Two days out from Earth, ESA ground stations in Perth, Australia, and Kourou, Guiana, sent radio signals to the spacecraft to re-direct its course to Mars.

Electrical shortage. While the probe was cruising toward Mars in July 2003, European engineers found and blamed a shortage of electrical power for the spacecraft on a rough connection between the Mars Express solar panels and the distributor of the electricity they generate. Only 70 percent of the electricity was getting through to the various pieces of equipment inside the probe.

The engineers said the problem wouldn't affect the success of the mission or insertion of the probe into Mars orbit. However, it did necessitate changes in how the probe's science instruments are used at the Red Planet.

Mars Express was traveling at 67,000 miles per hour on its journey of nearly 249 million miles. The main spacecraft released Beagle 2 on December 19, 2003, for a landing on Mars on Christmas, December 25. Beagle 2 did plunge down to the martian surface, but has not been heard from since December 25.

Photographing Earth

Mars Express photo of Earth and Moon on July 3, 2003
Mars Express photo of Earth and the Moon on July 3, 2003
Source: ESA/DLR/Freie Universität Berlin
click image to enlarge
Meanwhile, on July 3, 2003, Mars Express looked back across five million miles to snap a picture of Earth and the Moon.

That photo was the first observational data sent home by the probe. In it, the black depth of space surrounds Earth and the Moon:
  • Earth is highlighted by the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, the largest body of water on our planet. Clouds over the equator and the middle northern latitudes appear white.

  • The Moon amounts to a few picture elements (pixels) forming a tiny arc of light at the opposite end of the photo.
The picture was recorded by the spacecraft's High Resolution Stereo Camera. The HRSC was not designed for such long-range photography, which ESA said explains the low resolution of the image.

At Mars, the probe orbits above the planet at altitudes ranging from 155 to 186 miles. From there, the HRSC records very high-resolution images of the surface in color and 3-D.

Mars Express Science Tasks

Mars Global Surveyor Earth-Moon portrait
Click image to enlarge an Earth-Moon portrait recorded two months earlier by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft on May 8, 2003, from its position in orbit around the Red Planet.

After releasing Beagle 2, Mars Express fired its main engine to take it away from a collision course with Mars and put it onto a trajectory from which it was inserted into an orbit around Mars. Aerobraking was used.

Now that the spacecraft is working in orbit above Mars, it uses its seven science instruments to record images of the planet's surface and map its minerals and atmosphere. Its UHF antenna receives data from the Beagle 2 lander on the surface for forwarding to Earth.

The seven instruments in the orbiter perform these tasks:
  • high-resolution imaging of the surface
  • mapping of minerals
  • mapping atmospheric circulation and composition
  • radar sounding of the subsurface structure
  • study of surface-atmosphere interactions between the surface and the atmosphere as well as the interaction between the atmosphere and the outer space environment
A variety of European research institutions built the science instruments for the spacecraft, which itself was built by 24 companies from 15 European countries and the U.S.

OMEGA spectrometer sees methane. While testing HRSC on July 3, the ground controllers also tested the probe's OMEGA spectrometer, an instrument designed to map minerals and water on Mars. They pointed OMEGA at Earth and it found molecular oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, ozone and methane. That degree of sensitivity should allow OMEGA to see minute amounts of water on the Martian surface and in the planet's atmosphere.

Wile orbiting the Red Planet in March 2004, Mars Express detected methane in the planet's atmosphere.

What Happened to the Beagle 2?

ESA artist concept of Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars
Click image to enlarge an ESA artist concept of how the lost Beagle 2 might have looked after a proper landing on the Red Planet.
Beagle 2, riding the Mars Express, was a British project to land a robot explorer on the surface. The small lander rode to Mars piggyback on the Mars Express main spacecraft. As Mars Express began to enter its orbit around the Red Planet, the main spacecraft released the Beagle 2 to land and search the surface for signs of life.

Beagle 2 separated as planned from Mars Express on December 19, 2003, and began its plunge down to the martian surface in search of evidence of past or present life. Unfortunately, Beagle 2 has not been heard from since December 25. It is not known whether it landed intact or was broken up by smashing into the surface.

Darwin's ship. The Beagle 2 lander was the conception of Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University, UK. He named it Beagle 2 after the ship in which Charles Darwin sailed around the world in the 1830s as Darwin formulated his ideas about evolution. Beagle 2 was intended to settle the question of whether life has ever existed on the Red Planet.

The landing that might have been. Beagle 2 was released as late as possible, just five days before Mars Express was to enter orbit around the Red Planet, to increase the lander's chances of hitting its target on the ground.

Small thrusters fired to put Mars Express onto a trajectory that would allow Beagle 2, which had no propulsion of its own, to enter the Martian atmosphere and drift down to the correct landing site on the surface. During that five day period, as planned, the lander neither transmitted nor received radio signals.

After five days of coasting downward through free space, Beagle 2 should have needed only about ten minutes to pass through the Martian atmosphere to the surface.

The lander was to have been protected by its heat shield during its final fiery plunge through the atmosphere. Then Beagle's parachutes were to have deployed to slow its descent as it entered the thin Martian atmosphere. About one kilometer above the surface, large gas-filled balls were to have deployed around the lander like a cocoon to cushion its landing as it bounced to rest on the surface.

If all went as planned, the Beagle would have been expected to bounce to a halt on the flat boulder-strewn plain, the Isidis basin.

A warm spot. Beagle 2 was to have set down on the Red Planet at Isidis Planitia, a large flat region that overlies the boundary between the ancient highlands and the northern plains.

In their search for life, scientists noticed that the area appears to be a sedimentary basin where traces of life could have been preserved. That is, if primitive life existed at some time on Mars.

The site in in Isidis Planitia, the third largest impact basin on Mars, was selected as a place warm enough for Beagle 2 to function properly during early spring when it was due to land on Mars.

ESA researchers had thought the number of rocks on the surface seemed to be about right. There were not too many to threaten a safe landing, yet enough to provide an interesting landscape for the experiments.

The landing site was low enough in elevation to provide the landing craft's parachutes with sufficient atmosphere to brake its descent. The site had few steep slopes down which the tiny probe might have bounced as it landed. The area did not seem to be too dusty.

The landing area was about 300 miles long by 60 miles wide. The exact size depended on the angle at which Beagle 2 entered the Martian atmosphere. The steeper the angle, the smaller the area. However, the landing site was chosen to accommodate the maximum likely size, which ruled out the bottom of many valleys.

What Beagle would have done. The lander would have been the first to go down to look specifically for evidence of life on Mars since the two Viking landers back 1976.

Beagle's cameras, mounted on the its robotic arm, would have snapped close-up photos of the soil and any rocks there as its controllers back on Earth looked around for interesting specimens.

To gather samples from inside rocks, a drill on the robotic arm would have punched holes in rocks. Meanwhile, a robot mole would have crawled slowly across the surface to clutch soil samples from beneath boulders. Back in Beagle, the samples' chemicals would have beed analyzed for signs of life.

What happened to Beagle 2? An intense search by photography from satellites overhead and by radio for the lander's signals turned up nothing.

Could it have burned up on the way down? Could its parachutes not have slowed its descent sufficiently in the thin atmosphere so it was smashed on the surface? Could it have landed and bounced into an unforeseen deep crater from which it could not be heard? So far, no one knows.

In December 2005, a NASA Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) photo taken by that spacecraft's Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) may have shown the Beagle 2 on the martian surface among the many thousands of craters in the hundreds of square miles of Beagle 2Õs landing target.

The photo seemed to show material ejected by an impact on the surface. The scene looked similar to the one produced by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit in the Bonneville crater and a cluster of symmetrically arranged objects that look like a gas bag separation as the gas lander drops to the ground.

Is There Life on Mars?

European Space Agency artist's conception of Mars Express above the Red Planet
European Space Agency artist conception of Mars Express orbiting over the Red Planet
[click image to enlarge]
If there were water on Mars, there may have been life. If there is water on Mars, there may be life.

Earlier Mars probes have sent back data suggesting water once flowed on the Red Planet. Their pictures seemed to show canyons and gullies carved by lakes and rivers. Huge quantities of that very water may now be trapped under the surface.

Down on the surface in 2004, NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers identified rocks that once were immersed in water. NASA geologists said large bodies of water once flowed freely on the surface.

Europe's Mars Express. MARSIS — the Mars Express orbiter's ground-penetrating radar — is looking down as deep as half a mile beneath the surface of the planet in search of water.

Of course, deep water probably wouldn't be the only water on Mars. Elsewhere on the planet, the polar caps may contain both water ice and dry ice, which is frozen carbon dioxide. In fact, after the findings of the Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars probably was both wet and warm billions of years ago. Today, it is dry and cold with a thin atmosphere that is mostly carbon dioxide.

Mars Express will continue working in orbit — observing and relaying — for at least one Martian year. That is 687 Earth days. The spacecraft is designed for a possible mission extension of up to two additional Martian years.

Space Today Online:
Exploring Mars
Mars Probes
Probes of the Past
Probes of the Future
Mars Water
Mars Canals
Mars Air
Mars Rocks
Mars Seasons
Mars Mountains
Mars Rift Valley
Mars Moons
Mars Life Search
Mars Dust Storms
Mars Stats
Mars Nearby
Mars history
Mars Resources
Mars Orbiter 2005
Mars Scout 2007
NASA Mars History:
Rover Spirit 2003
Rover Opportunity 2003
Express 2003
Odyssey 2001
Polar Lander 1999
Climate Orbiter 1998
Deep Space 2 1999
Global Surveyor 1996
Pathfinder Lander 1996
Rover Sojourner 1996
Pathfinder Mission 1996
Viking-1 Lander 1975
Viking-2 Orbiter 1975
Viking-1 Lander 1975
Viking-1 Orbiter 1975
Mariner 9 Orbiter 1971
Mars 3 Lander 1971
Mariner 4 Flyby 1964
Viking Mission 1975
Mars Meteorites - JPL
Explorations Planned:
2003 & Beyond - Goddard
2005 & Beyond - JPL
Mars Exploration - JPL
Plans to Explore Planets

Solar System:
Solar System - JPL
Welcome to the Planets - JPL
Planetary Photojournal - JPL
Mars - Athena - NASA Ames
Solar System Tour - BBC
Mars - New York Times
Windows...Universe - UMich
Mars - Apollo Society
Planetary Society
Mars Society
The Nine Planets
Planet Mars Company
Solar System - STO
Solar System Tour
Artist conception of Mars with water four billion years ago
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