The European Space Agency was set to launch an ambitious project to search for life on Mars Monday. But the first all-European planetary exploration effort must overcome the bad luck that has plagued previous missions.
The Mars Express will take six months to reach the red planet.
The red planet has never been kind to scientists. Roughly two-thirds of the 30 missions to Mars are considered failures. Officials from the European Space Agency (ESA) hope their Mars Express probe will shake off the curse, so it can settle once and for all whether life exists, has existed, or ever can exist on Earth’s neighbor.
"We do not know what happened to the planet in the past. Which process turned Mars into the dry, cold world we see today?" said Agustin Chicarro, ESA's Mars Express project scientist, in a statement. "With Mars Express, we will find out. Above all, we aim to obtain a complete global view of the planet - its history, its geology, how it has evolved. Real planetology!"
Though space exploration has always been challenging, the stakes for the ESA are particularly high. Europe’s aerospace industry is hoping to raise its profile amid stiff competition from the United States, Russia, Japan and even China.
The Mars Express is only one of three missions taking off this month to take advantage of a period when Earth and Mars are at their closest point in 17 years. The motto of the 300-million-euro mission is “faster, smarter, and more cost-effective” than any previous exploration of Mars.
More responsibility for private sector
The mission also hopes to succeed by giving more responsibility to the 24 private technology companies that are taking part in the project.
The mission will begin at roughly 7:45 pm Central European Time, when a Russian Soyuz rocket lifts off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. Sitting atop the powerful rocket will be a planetary orbiter and a small, 65-kilogram British lander probe called The Beagle 2, in honor of the ship that carried Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands in 1831.
Some time in December, the orbiter and the Beagle will separate high above Mars and a German control team in the city of Darmstadt near Frankfurt will guide the Beagle to a controlled collision with the planet’s surface, somewhere in an area 300 kilometers long and 150 kilometers wide. Parachutes will slow the decent and air balloons encasing the probe will enable it to bounce to a cushioned landing.
The Beagle 2 lander.
If all goes according to plan, the Beagle will play a short, nine-note tune composed by the British pop group Blur to alert mission control that the Beagle has landed.
Over the following months it will explore the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and sub-surface. The Beagle will gather information both with a gas sniffing “nose” for analysis of the air and with a probe which will collect samples from as much as two meters below the surface of the planet. Then if the mission’s luck holds, the Beagle will relay its data to the orbiter, which will beam it back to earth for two years. But that’s only if the red planet decides to be a little nicer to Earth’s scientists.