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Mars Express leads interplanetary pack

European agency's probe to seek evidence of life

From Ryan Chilcote

ESA's Mars Express is scheduled for launch Monday.
ESA's Mars Express is scheduled for launch Monday.

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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- The European Space Agency got a head start Monday in sending probes to Mars to look for extraterrestrial life.

The Mars Express -- the first of three missions to Mars in June -- will try to find out if there is, or ever was, life on Mars.

The mission is part of an international race among scientists around the globe to determine whether life exists on the red planet.

Two NASA missions will launch toward Mars from the United States this month. The first is scheduled for June 8, and the second for June 25.

The ESA's Mars Express leads the pack of several probes expected to land on Mars in the next decade.

"For Europe it's a big, big event, and for international cooperation it's also a big event," said Alain Fournier-Sicre of the European Space Agency.

Each mission will look for signs of water, a requirement for life on Earth.

"We believe there is water still embedded in the planet and maybe some creatures which might be at a certain level of life," Fournier-Sicre said. "Of course we didn't discover [it] yet, but there is a big question mark."

Mars Express hopes to answer that question with two spacecraft that will work in tandem.

An image of Mars taken from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor.
An image of Mars taken from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor.

Its Beagle 2 will parachute into the planet's atmosphere equipped with cameras to snap pictures and a drill designed to collect Martian samples.

Overhead, the main craft will orbit the planet, using a radar system to look beneath the planet's surface and taking pictures to relay back to scientists on Earth.

Mars Express launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan on Monday.

It is scheduled to reach Mars in December and has a planned life of about two years. The Beagle 2 lander is expected to last 180 days. The two U.S. missions are scheduled to reach the planet in January.

NASA has stepped up testing and oversight of its Mars missions after it lost two spacecraft in 1999.

A botched conversion from English to metric units caused the Climate Orbiter to fly too close to Mars. The Polar Lander crashed to the surface after descent rockets shut down too soon.

Many scientists believe proof of life beyond Earth is attainable relatively quickly.

"I think we're very close," Fournier-Sicre said. "In 10, 15 years, it will be quite evident that there are forms of life."

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