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British Spacecraft Approaches Mars Landing - 2003-12-15

Britain's first mission to another planet - an unmanned probe - is just days away from attempting to land on Mars and search for life.

Excitement is building at Britain's National Space Center as the European-built Mars Express orbiter approaches the Red Planet.

The Mars Express is carrying a British-designed Martian lander named Beagle 2.

The mission manager, Mark Sims, spoke with VOA during a tour of the Landing Operations Control Center. He says that if all goes as planned, Beagle 2 will bounce on air bags to a safe landing on Mars on December 25.

"Entry into the atmosphere at the moment is predicted at 2:51 [UTC] in the morning on Christmas Day," he explained. "Six or seven minutes later, it's over, one way or another. And hopefully with Beagle 2 safely down on the surface."

Scientists will not know for sure if Beagle 2 is functional until a flyover by an American Mars orbiter named Odyssey.

"Two and a half hours after we land, the Odyssey spacecraft will overfly us and send a signal to Beagle, and Beagle hopefully will reply with its housekeeping data and a first picture from the surface of Mars," said Mr. Sims.

Mr. Sims says that three or four weeks after a successful landing, Beagle 2 should begin its key experiment, using a robotic arm to look for chemical signs that life did, or does, exist on Mars.

"Its aim is to look for life," said the mission manager. "However science is never black and white. Even if we don't find signs of life, Beagle 2 will do some fabulous geochemistry and look at the landing site and it's a whole new area of Mars. It's a very interesting area of Mars because it looks like it may have been a basin perhaps in a northern ocean which may have existed on Mars three to four billion years ago."

Amid the optimism about Beagle 2's quest, there is also caution. The research director at Britain's National Space Center, Alan Wells, says a lot can go wrong between Beagle 2's separation from Mars Express and its landing on Mars.

"Mars is very difficult," cautioned Mr. Wells. "The success rate overall from all the missions is below 50 percent in terms of successful landings. And that's what we're up against. And we know that there are a lot of serial activities that have to succeed in order to get down there. So all I'm giving you is a rather cautious personal view. And I hope I'm very, very wrong."

Mr. Wells says the European Space Agency, known as ESA, will keep exploring Mars no matter what happens to Beagle 2. "I think there is a big momentum behind the search for life on Mars," he said. "And I think that ESA now is as committed as the United States to exploration of Mars. And if we were not to be lucky on this occasion, I don't think it would be the last attempt."

However, there are doubts about how committed Europeans are to spending the money required for space exploration projects. In the case of Beagle 2, it currently is funded only for six months of operations on Mars, although it could have enough battery power to gather and send data for eight months or more.