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All about Mars Express

Mars Express is Europe's first mission to Mars. It is so-called because it has been built and made ready for launch in record time, meaning that the mission will be accomplished at a much lower cost than previous missions into outer space.

Mars Express will set off on its six-month journey in May/June 2003 from the Baikonur launch pad in Kazakhstan, on-board a Russian Soyuz-Fregat launcher. Cruising at a speed of 10,800 km/h relative to Earth, Mars Express will arrive at Mars by Christmas 2003.

The journey takes place at a time when Earth and Mars make their closest approach to each other for 17 years. The timing also has to be spot-on to allow the spacecraft to enter the right orbit around Mars. If it is out by a fraction, Mars Express could burn up on arrival or miss Mars altogether.

By firing its main engines, Mars Express will get itself into position in orbit around Mars. This orbit has an elliptical shape, so that every seven and a half hours, the spacecraft comes to within 250 km of the planet for around half an hour. Then it will retreat back to around 11,000 km from the surface, before returning again to view a different part of the planet.

     

During its one Martian year of operation, that's 687 Earth days, Mars Express will be viewing the entire surface of the Red Planet with a whole range of different instruments. Before its goes into orbit around Mars, the spacecraft's first job is to eject the Beagle 2 lander on to the surface, where it will carry out detailed rock and soil analysis.

The main objective of the mission is to detect the presence of water below the surface of Mars, which could be in the form of underground rivers, pools, permafrost or aquifers (below surface rock formations concealing water). Mars Express will carry seven scientific instruments, in addition to Beagle 2, designed specifically to gather new information on the Martian atmosphere, the planet's structure and geology.

Above all, we need to know why Martian water disappeared from its surface in the past. If we can answer this question, we could predict with more certainty whether a similar fate awaits Earth.

When the spacecraft comes closest to Mars, it will turn all its attention towards the planet, taking measurements and receiving data from Beagle 2. Then, as it moves away, it will turn towards Earth to communicate with the ground stations, and receive new commands. It will take eight minutes for communication signals from Earth to travel the millions of kilometres in order to reach the spacecraft.

Find out more about the Mars Express mission

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