11 december 2003 - Unwrapping Pictures from Mars for Christmas

Beagle 2, Britain's mission to Mars, is due to land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003 at 0254 GMT. Mars Express is due to go into orbit around Mars at 0300 GMT the same day. Scientists at University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory (UCL-MSSL), at Holmbury St Mary near Dorking, are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Beagle 2 and Mars Express at the red planet for three reasons:

The first picture Beagle 2 sends back from Mars may even be available on Christmas morning. Dr Andrew Coates of UCL-MSSL, the lead scientist for Beagle 2's 'eyes', says 'Beagle 2's first result, after the Blur call sign, should be our wrap-around picture of Beagle 2 and its landing site. This will be taken by our camera using a pop-up wide angle mirror, very early in the mission. We hope to be literally unwrapping this picture on Christmas morning to show Beagle 2's view of where it has landed'.

During Beagle 2's first night on Mars, the cameras will be used to 'steer by the stars' as scientists locate the lander's position more precisely than it's 174x106 m target area on the surface. This celestial navigation is the same technique used by Charles Darwin's Beagle, during its voyages which led to his book 'On the origin of species'. Beagle 2 is Britain's, and Europe's, new mission to look for the origin of life, this time on Mars.

The stereo cameras will measure the three-dimensional shape of the landing site after the first few days, to locate the rocks which Beagle 2 will study. Later in the mission the cameras will be used to help find what the rocks are made of, and will look for water in the Martian atmosphere.

Water is important on Mars as it is a key ingredient for life. Scientists think that 3.8 billion years ago Mars had flowing water on the surface, a thick atmosphere and a protecting magnetic shield like the Earth's. Now, all that is gone and Mars is dry and barren, has a thin carbon dioxide rich atmosphere, and has no large scale magnetic field. However recent discoveries by other spacecraft have shown that there may still be water, probably in the form of permafrost, within a metre of the surface in the Martian polar regions. There may even be water covered by snow packs on the surface. All this points to better conditions for life on Mars 3.8 billion years ago - and a very slim chance now too.

Dr Andrew Coates, UCL-MSSL's lead scientist for both Beagle 2 and Mars Express, says 'We are in a pivotal position to look for water on Mars at UCL, as we are the only scientific group involved in both lander and orbiter. With our 'eyes' on the surface we will look for water in the atmosphere, and our involvement with ASPERA on the orbiter will allow us to measure how quickly water escapes from the atmosphere, scavenged away by the solar wind. Combined with other instruments on the orbiter which can look for water up to 5km under the surface, Europe is going to make vital new discoveries about water on Mars with this mission. We will have a key role in this'.

Building for the surface of Mars has been a challenge. Stereo camera system project manager Dr Andrew Griffiths says 'Our cameras and filter wheels will have to survive huge temperature swings, from -90 to 0 degrees between night and day on the surface. We also have to cope with dust and have installed, and tested, windscreen wipers for the cameras to reduce this. Everything is working fine and we can't wait for Beagle 2 to land on the surface'.

The ASPERA instrument on the Orbiter will measure how much material escapes from the Martian atmosphere at present. This can then be extrapolated back 3.8 billion years to understand whether the solar wind scavenging is sufficient to explain Mars' atmospheric loss since then.


Dr Andrew Coates - Beagle 2 Stereo Camera System lead investigator, and Mars Express ASPERA co-investigator

Phone: 01483 204145
Email: ajc@mssl.ucl.ac.uk
Dr Andrew Griffiths - Beagle 2 Stereo Camera System project manager

Phone 01483 204288
Email: adg@mssl.ucl.ac.uk

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