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European Probe Closes in on Mars

After journeying six months and 400 million kilometers, the European Space Agency's Mars Express began its final approach to the Red Planet, where it will look for signs of water and life.

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Beagle 2 slowly moves away from its mother ship.

DARMSTADT, Germany -- For Europe’s first mission to Mars, the atmosphere at the European Space Agency’s answer to Mission Control was surprisingly calm Friday morning. A handful of engineers pondered data on the screens of their computers as a stuffed beagle mascot watched over what could easily have become a tension-riddled morning.

For nearly two hours, when the European Space Operations Center lost contact with Mars Express, as planned, scientists huddled quietly in corners, eyes glancing nervously at watches.

"It was a strange feeling with nothing to do -- just sit and wait and hope that everything goes right," said John Reddy, principal electrical systems engineer and one of the many scientists manning the computer terminals.

Then, just after noon, the calm scene erupted into one of elation as the first data made the 8.21-minute journey back to Earth signaling the successful separation of ESA’s Mars probe from its mother ship. With the maneuver behind it, Mars Express entered the final leg of its journey to the Red Planet, where it will search for water and signs of life, both present and past.

"We can confirm that we have Beagle 2 separation," said Mike McKay, the mission’s flight director. The separation, which involved sending 115 separate commands to the spacecraft, marks the start of the probe’s six-day descent to Mars, which will culminate with a dramatic entry into the Martian atmosphere during the wee hours of Christmas morning.

"It’s on its way to Mars. It’s been a very tense morning and now we have an enormous sense of relief," said ESA director of science David Southwood. "This is a big step towards getting to Mars. We have to wait now till Christmas Day for the next step... I’m confident mother and baby are very well. Let’s see how the family does."

The separation is the final chapter in a 400-million-kilometer, six-month journey that has been challenged by solar flares that, at one point, threw the Mars Express off course, and problems with the on-board solar panels. On Friday those minor glitches faded as mission control popped open the champagne and celebrated it’s first taste of victory.

The aim of the Mars Express mission is to detect whether water ever existed beneath the planet’s surface. "We’re going to Mars to find out more about our neighbor planet," said Southwood. "Mars is the only planet that could have supported the kind of life we know. As for now, we don’t think it supports life. That should worry people. Why? What went wrong? Why doesn’t it have life. And could it have (life) in the future?"

If water did ever exist on Mars, Southwood said, ESA scientists want to find out what made it disappear. "There are signs there was water, but where is it now? We’ll be looking at the atmosphere leading (from Mars) into space. Did circumstances lead to water being lost. Where did it go – under the surface or was it removed into the atmosphere and into space? We’re looking to see what process could have led to this."

The mission’s two major vessels – the Mars Express orbiter and the Beagle 2 probe – have both been outfitted with state-of-the-art gadgets designed to answer those questions. The orbiter, which will circle Mars for two years, includes a ground-penetrating radar that can scan several kilometers beneath the Martian surface in its search for water.

The 65-kilogram Beagle 2 lander, named after the ship Charles Darwin sailed to the Galapagos Islands in 1831, will comb the surface of Mars, "scratching and sniffing" like its namesake dog to search for signs of life. The British-made lander is equipped with two cameras, microscopes, rock grinders, cameras, x-ray spectrometers, a paw that can dig beneath rocks and a mini laboratory for on board analysis. "It will tell the history of the rocks," said Southwood.

But before the groundwork can begin, Beagle has to overcome one more hurdle that two-thirds of previous Mars missions have failed to do: make it safely to the planet’s surface.

Once it enters into the Martian atmosphere, friction is expected to slow the Beagle’s descent from about 20,000 kilometers per hour to 1,600. At that point parachutes will be deployed, the heat shield ejected and gas-filled airbags will engulf the lander, enabling it to repeatedly bounce as high as 30 meters until it makes a safe landing on Mars.

ESA scientists have pin-pointed the landing area to a small ellipses measuring 31.8 by 5.1 kilometers located at Isidis Planitia on Mars’ northern hemisphere, a relatively rockless and flat sedimentary basin that provides the most optimal landing conditions.

If all goes well after landing, the Beagle will pop open, unfurling its scientific instruments and solar panels that will be used to power them. It will also play a short song penned by the British pop group Blur to signal success. And back in Darmstadt, ESA officials will declare that "The Beagle has landed."

The €300 million mission marks the European Space Agency’s first interplanetary mission. ESA officials hope to use the mission to generate widespread interest in space exploration.

"It’s not the little green men we’re looking for," said ESA’s Southwood, "but mineral material. We’re doing the detective story by looking for clues, not by finding a dead or live body in the library."

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