Travelling at nearly 20 times the speed of sound, Europe's most adventurous spacecraft will still take six months to travel 250 million miles to its final destination--Mars. Five days before the European Space Agency's Mars Express goes into orbit around the Red Planet, it will split into two, ejecting a hitch-hiking space probe from the mother ship.
The probe, called Beagle 2, will then begin its hazardous journey to the Martian surface to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.
If all goes to plan, this is what should happen next.
As Beagle 2 speeds towards the ground at more than 14,000mph, its heat shields become white hot as atmospheric friction begins to slow the space probe down. An explosive mortar fires at a given point above ground to deploy a small pilot parachute, which pulls the probe into two sections, releasing the bigger main chute from its stowed position so that it can take the strain and slow Beagle 2's descent still further.
Pyrotechnic bolts suddenly explode at just the right moment to release Beagle 2's cumbersome heat shield, which falls harmlessly to the ground. Moments before impact, three giant gas bags inflate around the clam-shaped probe to provide a …