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'First dog' on Mars

The first ‘canine creature’ on Mars will be a Beagle. Beagle 2 to be exact – a small, low-weight probe that is hitching a ride on Mars Express, only to be catapulted into the atmosphere of Mars at more than 20,000 km/h. Like a scene from a science fiction movie, the probe will bounce to the surface cushioned by balloons, roll to a stop, then switch itself on.

Beagle 2 is the British-led effort to land on Mars as part of the Mars Express mission. Named after HMS Beagle that took Charles Darwin around the world in the 1830s, Beagle 2 has serious business to attend to on Mars.

Roughly the size of a dog basket, it has its own ‘PAW’ or a Position Adjustable Workbench. This is a collection of instruments, cameras and rock scrapers at the end of a robotic arm. When Beagle 2 reaches the surface of Mars around Christmas 2003, the PAW will play a crucial role in digging out signs of life, scratching below the surface of the planet, looking for water, organic residues and carbonate minerals. Soil samples will be dug out using the Mole, a robot that can tunnel beneath the oxidized surface. Other instruments include a corer to extract the rock samples and a grinder to remove the surface layer of rock.

Although only small, with a total mass of about 60kg, Beagle 2 is fully equipped to carry out many ground-breaking experiments. Its Gas Analysis Package (GAP) will heat up rock and soil, and analyze the gases released. This analysis will allow scientists to distinguish between possible microbial remains (evidence of past life) and carbonate minerals.

But Beagle 2 is not only looking for evidence of life. The GAP will also analyze the atmosphere for clues to the history of Mars and its climate. Another high-tech piece of kit will be providing food for thought on the subject of Mars’s colour. It will be sending back important information on the nature of the iron in mineral samples, and just how much it has been oxidized, which could provide further explanation as to why Mars is red. There is also a piece of hardware that can actually date the rocks that it encounters by bombarding them with X-rays.

A suite of instruments will be measuring the weather, including temperature, pressure, wind, ultraviolet rays, dust and the oxidation potential of the atmosphere. Meanwhile, a pair of cameras working in stereo hope to give a panorama of the landing site and create a 3D map. A third camera is part of a microscope used by the robotic arm that will study fresh rock surfaces cleaned of weathering debris by the grinder.

When it has completed its momentous and hazardous landing, the first thing Beagle 2 will do is send a message back to Earth. Not a blood-curdling howl, but a tune composed by pop group Blur. Then, the first sets of data will start streaming back to Earth.

Find out more about Beagle 2

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