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Europe's Mars Express Craft Launched

June 03, 2003|From Associated Press

MOSCOW — An unmanned spacecraft built by the European Space Agency blasted off atop a Russian rocket Monday on a mission to Mars, where it will orbit the planet for nearly two years and search for signs of life.

The Mars Express spacecraft was launched by a Soyuz FG booster rocket from the Russian-operated Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the space agency said.

The vehicle, which cost $350 million, was initially put into Earth orbit and about 90 minutes later was given the final push to send it on a six-month journey to Mars. It is the European agency's first interplanetary mission.

Several days before the spacecraft reaches Mars in December, the British-built Beagle 2 lander is set to separate from the vehicle. It will parachute to the Martian surface Dec. 25. The tiny lander will head to Isidis Planitia, north of the Martian equator, where traces of life could have been preserved.

Scientists think Mars once had plenty of water and appropriate conditions for life but lost it billions of years ago, possibly after being hit by asteroids. It is believed water might still exist on Mars as underground ice.

The lander would dig into Mars to search for organic materials and check the atmosphere for traces of methane produced by living organisms -- the first such search since 1976, when twin U.S. Viking landers brought inconclusive results.

Once the lander is ejected, mission controllers will have to adjust Mars Express' trajectory and reduce its speed to allow gravity to capture the vehicle.

Mars Express is to remain in its Martian orbit for at least one Martian year, 687 Earth days. Its antenna will receive data from Beagle 2 and the orbiter's own instruments.

The mission will map the planet, use a powerful radar to probe its surface for evidence of water and measure water concentrations in the atmosphere.

NASA is sending its own twin Mars Exploration Rovers later this month in an $800-million mission to try to answer the same questions about water and life. A Japanese spacecraft launched in 1998 continues its trip toward Mars, despite some electronic troubles.

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