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NASA and ESA Explore Mars
12.18.03
 
Mars is a popular place to visit these days. The European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express Beagle 2 is expected to arrive on Mars Dec. 24, 2003 (in U.S. time zones). NASA's spacecraft Spirit is scheduled to land Jan. 3, 2004, followed by its twin Opportunity, on Jan. 24, 2004.

Mars Express-credit ESA Two instruments on Mars Express contain components from U.S. partners and every instrument on the Mars Express includes U.S. scientists. Europe provided important equipment for NASA's twin rovers in addition to participation on the rovers' science team.

At left is ESA's Mars Express. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory supplied navigational support and software to the spacecraft. Communications support is provided by the JPL-managed Deep Space Network.

These joint efforts between NASA and ESA, according to NASA official Dave Lavery, will complement each other and provide a range of new information about Mars that neither could provide alone.

Mars Express has successfully ejected the Beagle 2 lander, which is expected to make its way to the correct landing site on the surface. As Mars Express orbits the planet it will monitor Mars' atmosphere, structure and geology, while Beagle 2 uses its robotic arm to collect Martian material for research.

During their approximately seven-month journey, Spirit and Opportunity have been nestled inside a folded-up lander surrounded by deflated airbags. In a complicated and delicate process, they will make their way down to the Red Planet.

As they descend the rovers are protected from the heat of entry by an aeroshell. Two minutes before landing a parachute will open slowing their descent. Six seconds before landing the airbags will inflate. Scientists are depending on the inflated airbags to keep the rovers safe as they bounce on the planet's surface and roll to a stop.Artistic rending of airbags bouncing on Mars

Two of the three big challenges have been overcome: The building and launching of Spirit and Opportunity. The final challenge is getting them safely onto the planet. Scientists will be anxiously awaiting communication from the rovers after they land.

This is not the first time Mars has resisted investigation. More than half of all the missions launched to Mars have not been successful. For example in 1993, the Mars Observer spacecraft was to be the first U.S. spacecraft to study the planet since the Viking missions 18 years earlier. The spacecraft fell silent just 3 days prior to entering orbit around Mars.

Scientists are hopeful that the care taken by NASA and ESA in preparing the missions that will reach Mars in the next few weeks will pay off with a wealth of new information about the planet's past and present environment.

For further information visit: http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html
For information on Mars Express visit: http://sci.esa.int/science-e/www/area/index.cfm?fareaid=9
 
 
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and John F. Kennedy Space Center