It's going to hitchhike to Mars
Parachute down to the Martian surface
Bring modern art to the Red Planet
and it might make one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century.
So what is it?
It is the Beagle 2 lander, a small but perfectly formed space probe designed by the Open University in Britain to try and sniff out signs of life on Mars.
The Beagle 2 hitched a lift on the ESA Mars Express mission to Mars. The launch of the Mars Express took place on 2nd June 2003 and the Beagle has now landed on the red planet.
The journey to Mars takes nearly seven months. Five days before the Mars Express reached Mars, a spring mechanism released the Beagle away from the body of the spacecraft. This mechanism also started rotating Beagle and sent it like a spinning top down towards the Martian atmosphere. The reason for putting Beagle into a spin is to aid stability. Just like a spinning rugby ball (or American football) the trajectory is stabilised by the spin.
Heat shields protect the little craft as it burns its way through the atmosphere. Beagle will take a hell of a buffeting at this stage and this is not the sort of treatment you want to dish out to delicate scientific equipment but the lander has been tested to make sure it can take this kind of beating. The team at the Open University have been working with McLaren Composites and the Beagle's protective casing is made from similar materials that protect McLaren's Formula 1 drivers David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen. Once through the worst of the ride, parachutes open to slow the Beagle's descent. Just above the proposed landing site on Isidis Planitia, giant air bags inflate to cushion the landing.
|Latest News on Beagle 2
Beagle 2 landed on Mars in the early hours of Christmas Day. Unfortunately scientists have been unable to establish contact with the craft...but they are still trying. For the latest news on attempts to contact Beagle, take a look at the Official Beagle 2 Site
After bouncing across the rocky plains, the lander comes to a rest and the air bags are released. This leaves the Beagle lying on Mars like an over-sized pocket watch. Hopefully it will have survived its hellfire descent to Mars.
The casing will flip open and solar panels will unfold like petals. These panels will power Beagle while it conducts its experiments on Mars.
The Beagle will now enjoy an artistic interlude before its real work begins. It will send its first signal back to earth letting the project team know it has landed in one piece. For most space probes this would be a piece of computer gobbledygook. However for this mission pop band Blur have commissioned a piece of music and by playing this music Beagle will announce its safe arrival on Mars. At present scientists are still waiting to hear this signal.
The space probe uses a piece of modern art by British artist Damien Hurst to test it's instruments are still working accurately.
At this point the serious work begins. The Beagle 2 has a specific mission. The Beagle 2 lander will, over its 180 day mission, conduct a range of experiments to try and find life on Mars.
So what scientific equipment will the Beagle use to sniff out signs of life?
The landed weight of the Beagle is a paltry 30kg, this includes the casing, batteries and solar panels, so is there any room left for scientific equipment?
Unbelievably the team at the open university have managed to cram this lot on board:
- 7 environmental scensors
- Mass spectrometer
- Gas Analysis Package - to literally sniff for signs of life
- Rock corer - to take samples from inside martian rocks
- Tiny ovens - used to heat rock samples
- Rock Grinder
- X-ray detectors
- PLUTO - A mole on a leash that will burrow under rocks collecting samples
This is an incredible array of equipment and the idea is to sniff the martian atmosphere, dig around, collect samples, test, heat and analyse the Martian rocks and soil and find out if Mars has any traces of life.
The combination of these experiments will give the project team a feast of data to work with back on earth. This data could point to Mars being a completely sterile planet or it could provide evidence of life, either past or present, on Mars.
This imaginative 30 kilogram musical spaceship may ultimately aid one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century and rock the world.
The official web site of the Beagle 2 mission. Everything you want to know about Beagle 2 is right here. If you still have questions there are contact details for people on the project, and I can tell you for a fact that they are very helpful.
ESA Mars Express
The European Space Agency are running the Mars Express mission and you can find details about all aspects of the project at their website.
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RELATED PAGES AT ASTROCENTRAL
The Mars Express Mission
Lift off for the Beagle
Search for life on Mars
Search for life in the universe
Information about Mars
The Martian Myth
All images are courtesy of the Beagle 2 project (all rights reserved Beagle 2).