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ESA dreaming of a red Christmas

This Christmas Day, while many Europeans are celebrating the festive season, European Space Agency (ESA) scientists will be anxiously awaiting a first radio signal from Beagle 2, signifying its safe arrival on the Red Planet. The Mars Express spacecraft is now within 20 milli...

This Christmas Day, while many Europeans are celebrating the festive season, European Space Agency (ESA) scientists will be anxiously awaiting a first radio signal from Beagle 2, signifying its safe arrival on the Red Planet. The Mars Express spacecraft is now within 20 million kilometres of its final destination, and the thoughts of ESA engineers here on Earth are turning to the final phase of the mission. As it has no propulsion system of its own, the Beagle 2 lander will be launched towards the Martian surface by the Mars Express orbiter. Its descent will be slowed by friction with the planet's atmosphere, before parachutes deploy and gas filled bags inflate to cushion the final impact. All ears will then be tuned for the first radio signal of 'life' from the probe, which could take hours or even days. If nothing is heard, the UK Jodrell Bank telescope will be employed in the search, before Mars Express itself can assist when it reaches the right area of its orbit. If all goes well, the two spacecrafts will then begin the serious work of trying to establish whether there has been water, and possibly life, on Mars.