Europe and Nasa plan rival missions to Mars

By Tim Radford, Science editor, The Guardian

August 12 2000

Artists impression of NASA's Mars rover, a mobile laboratory which is expected to start exploring the Red Planet in 2004
Artists impression of NASA's Mars rover, a mobile laboratory which is expected to start exploring the Red Planet in 2004

Suddenly, there could be a traffic problem on Mars. The US space agency Nasahasjust announced that it will send two large, wheeled vehicles to explore the surface of the Red Planet.

The first could crash through the Martian atmosphere on January 2,2004. The second could bounce its way to a standstill in a cocoon of airbags 18 days later, on January 20.

But British and European scientists could arrive ahead of them. With luck, a European mission called Mars Express will have already delivered a small scientific parcel called Beagle 2, on Christmas Day or Boxing Day 2003.

Mars is afreezing planet, but it has become a hot scientific property. Earlier this summer, researchers studying the thousands of images taken by an orbiting satellite spotted patterns in the Martian soil which looked uncannily like recent sudden floods or surges of water, even though the atmosphere is too thin, and the temperatures too low, for liquid water to exist on the surface at all. But underground liquid water raises the possibility of underground life on Mars.

Nasa - which had been humiliated by the loss of two spacecraft in as many months as they reached the distant planet late in 1999 - suddenly had powerful reasons for trying again.

So the agency has decided to launch two identical 300lb mobile laboratories to crawl over the surface, and explore it from two perspectives.

"To have two rovers driving over dramatically different regions of Mars at the same time, to be able to drive over and see what is on the other side of the hill - it is an incredibly exciting idea," said Ed Weiler, one of Nasa's chiefs of space science. "I think everyone on Earth who has ever dreamed of being an explorer on an alien planet will want to go along for the ride as we explore the surface of Mars."

Mars was believed to be a living planet when HG Wells wrote The War of the Worlds. It was pronounced dead - geologically and biologically lifeless - after the Mariner explorations of the 1960s.

But earthbound biologists have since begun to realise that life is possible in once unimaginable places, as long as there is liquid water. And there have been recent, tantalising signs that water might exist - and that life might once have existed - on Mars. A small fleet of spacecraft is destined for launch in mid 2003, when Mars makes its closest approach to earth, thus cutting fuel costs and journey times. Since the scientific payloads are more ambitious, mission chiefs need to take the cheapest route.

"The goal of both rovers will be to learn about ancient water and climate on Mars," said Steven Squyres of Cornell University in New York state, and the rover mastermind. "You can think of each rover as a robotic field geologist, equipped to read the geologic record at its landing site and to learn what conditions were like back when the rocks and soils were formed."

But there are high hopes that Europe's Mars Express mission, with a little British lander called Beagle 2, might deliver mote dramatic information. Beagle 2 is designed to land, probe the soil below it and "sniff" for organic chemicals of the kind that might have been produced by living things - and to sniff for the presence of water. It will land in what looks like a riverbed near the Martian equator, while its parent spacecraft goes into orbit to begin a high altitude survey.

"Nasa is going to look extremely sexy when it goes there and the thing runs off and sends back its picture and says "we are here chaps'," said Beagle 2's chief scientist, Colin Pillinger of the Open University.

"Where Beagle scores is that the experiments that Beagle is doing are far more scientifically relevant. Nasa does not have a mass spectrometer, it does not have any ability to do organics, and although it says it is detecting water it isn't, it is measuring hydrogen. We are able to analyse the atmosphere. OK, we will not be doing it on a rapid turnaround, showing pictures on the web every day. We are going to do science."

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