Mark Launches Mars Express to Look for Life in Outer Space

By Walker, Jonathan | Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England), January 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Mark Launches Mars Express to Look for Life in Outer Space


Walker, Jonathan, Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)


A Midland scientist is in charge of the latest expedition to seek out evidence of living organisms on other planets MARS has always excited our imagination. The ancient Greeks identified it with Ares, the god of war. And in 1877 the astronomer Schiaparelli spotted what he thought were canals on the surface, giving rise to wild ideas about intelligent beings who might pose a threat to mankind. The truth is less dramatic - Mars is a dry and barren place but there could conceivably be some form of life there. Jonathan Walker reports on the Midland scientist who is leading the race to find out.

THE red deserts of Mars never played home to little green men but the hope of discovering evidence that some form of life once existed, or even persists today, is as strong as ever.

Indeed, NASA and the Russians have invested billions of pounds in attempts to discover the truth and feverish speculation was sparked by the announcement from US scientists in August 1996 that evidence of fossilised bacteria had been found in a meteorite from the planet.

Now these questions could finally be answered, with Midland scientists leading the way.

A team of space experts are planning to send sophisticated instruments 34.5 million miles to the alien planet to inspect its soil, geology and atmosphere. These are being constructed at Leicester University at a cost of pounds 30 million.

It's part of Mars Express - an attempt by the European Space Agency to prove it is a major player in the exploration of the final frontier.

In June 2003 a rocket to Mars will be launched. Once it arrives the following December, it will orbit the planet and release a small craft which will land on the surface.

This will be a miniature laboratory, containing sophisticated instruments designed for exobiology - the search for alien life.

It will be called Beagle 2 in honour of the ship Beagle which Charles Darwin, from Shrewsbury in Staffordshire, joined as resident naturalist in 1831.

The result, in 1859, was his book On the Origin of Species, which revolutionised our understanding of how life developed on Earth.

The major difference between Beagle 2 and previous efforts is that a series of experiments will be carried out on the planet's surface, either controlled from Earth or running automatically thanks to an on-board computer.

Previous investigations, by NASA, have tended to focus on obtaining samples of rock and bringing them home to be analysed here.

Project manager for Beagle 2 is Dr Mark Sims of the department of physics and astronomy at Leicester University. He is in charge of the construction team building the lander.

A detailed design is being drawn up. Early this year the first test models will be made and the scientific instruments will be constructed. Next year the lander will actually be built and it will go up into space for a test flight, orbiting Earth.

In 2002, if all goes well, it will return home and be sterilised, ready for the Mars Express launch in 2003.

Mission control for Beagle 2 will be in Leicester University, where a national space science centre is being built.

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Mark Launches Mars Express to Look for Life in Outer Space
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