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Science & Space

Race to Mars begins a distant search for life

By Richard Stenger

Europe's Beagle 2 will look for evidence of Martian microbes.
Europe's Beagle 2 will look for evidence of Martian microbes.

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(CNN) -- One will sniff, dig and bake. Two others will roam, grind and bore. Together, they could revolutionize our knowledge of the red planet and extraterrestrial life.

The robotic explorers from Europe and the United States are using entirely different approaches to the cosmic quest, which begin this month with launches that take advantage of an exceptionally close Earth-Mars alignment.

The Beagle 2 lander is a shoestring biologist, built by the British at the behest of the European Space Agency for an estimated $60 million. It departed Monday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The dog-sized bot, only 73 pounds (33 kilograms), will look for direct evidence of existing life, whether combing the Martian atmosphere for methane, a possible biological byproduct, or checking rocks for a form of carbon favored by cells.

NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers, mobile geologists that together cost the U.S. space agency about $800 million, will do more indirect detective work on the dry, cold planet, thought to have been wet and warm billions of years ago.

They are slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida the second and fourth week in June.

The twin landers, each the size of a desk and weighing 375 pounds (170 kilograms), will ramble dozens of meters a day, drilling into rocks and scooping up soil in preliminary field studies to help identify ancient oases.

Future landers might investigate the spots for signs of a Martian fossil record.

Most agree that Beagle 2 has more ambitious objectives, but whether it will deliver the goods is the question.

"Because the instrumentation aboard Beagle 2 is specifically designed to look for signs of current or extinct life, it will more than likely get the most attention," said Barry DiGregario, who wrote the book, "Mars: The Living Planet.

"It may be that the grand prize of confirming life on Mars could go to the British," he said.

Home run or strike out?

"Beagle 2 is trying to hit a home run. I don't think they'll hit it, but I wish them luck," said Harold "Hap" McSween, a NASA rover team member and University of Tennessee geologist who doubts life exists now on the red planet.

Scientists with the Beagle 2 program offer a spirited defense of Europe's first planetary lander, but acknowledge the mission is fraught with risks.

"If we didn't try to hit a home run, there wouldn't have been a mission," said Mark Sims, Beagle 2 landing manager and University of Leicester professor.

NASA's twin rovers could ramble more than 30 meters a day.
NASA's twin rovers could ramble more than 30 meters a day.

The project had to aim high to attract sponsors, "otherwise it would not have happened," Sims said.

But there are monetary and weight constraints on the craft. "Beagle is a small spacecraft with very little redundancies on it. Consequently, if anything fails, I'm afraid it's game over," Sims said.

The UK scientist who spearheaded Beagle 2, named for the ship that carried famed biologist Charles Darwin around the world in the 19th century, said the lack of frills did not mean compromised objectives.

"At the beginning, some people thought we were a 'me too' mission: Send a lander to Mars and take a picture," said Colin Pillinger, a professor at the Open University in Britain.

"But this is serious science. I wouldn't let one of these instruments get chopped off to save anything," Pillinger said.

Mostly civil match

The race to Mars has mostly been friendly, with competitors on both sides of the Atlantic offering praise for their counterparts. But there have been exceptions.

In 2000, Pillinger pilloried the NASA rovers as "much less scientifically accomplished." Unlike them, he told a meeting of British scientists, "Beagle 2 won't be going sightseeing."

He has since softened his tone, offering admiration for his better funded, more experienced NASA counterparts, who return the compliments in kind.

"I have a huge amount of respect for what they've accomplished," said chief Mars rover scientist Steve Squyres.

"They'd had to deal with huge technical as well as financial challenges. Just to get Beagle 2 to the launch pad is a huge accomplishment."

Squyres, a Cornell University astronomer, downplays the Mars competition.

"I think they complement each other very well," he said. "Mars is such a complex place, you have to hit it with everything you got. No single mission can fly every kind of instrument you would like to fly to Mars."

Despite their differences, the missions have some similarities. All will use spectrometers and X-ray sensors to study Martian minerals and elements.

All are loaded with panoramic cameras. Each will slow its descent via parachute and land with a bounce, or rather a series of bounces, nestled inside an inflatable cocoon.

A crowded place

The Mars neighborhood will be an extremely busy place in late December and January when five spacecraft are expected to arrive. Besides the landers, two satellites should begin orbiting the red planet.

start quoteDo I wish I could go? Oh yeah, in a heartbeat.end quote
-- Steve Squyres, NASA rover scientist

One is the European Space Agency's Mars Express, on which Beagle 2 is hitching its 35 million-mile (56 million-kilometer) ride. Shortly before going into orbit, it will jettison the small probe to the surface.

Another, Japan's Nozomi orbiter, was due to arrive in 1999. But a costly navigation error pushed back the due date to late 2003, and an unexpected blast of solar radiation later knocked out communications. Whether the mission can be salvaged remains unknown.

Such setbacks are common for robotic explorers to Mars.

More than 30 have undertaken the journey, but only a handful have succeeded, including NASA's Viking and Pathfinder landers in 1976 and 1997, and the Surveyor and Odyssey orbiters in 1997 and 2003, both of which remain in operation.

The U.S. space agency has by far the best track record, but the experience did not prevent two dismal failures in 1999, including an orbiter that burned up in the atmosphere because propellant engineers mixed up metric and English units.

Despite the dangers, robotic trips to Mars will likely continue. NASA has a handful already in the works, including one to return Martian samples to Earth.

James Head, a planetary geologist at Brown University, explains part of the allure:

"You look at the moon and it's very exciting, but Mars is easier to identify with. The ice caps, the wind, the evidence of flowing water and lava flow. These are things that are familiar to us. It's a world that has Earth-like geology and features."

And someday the scientific expeditions could include more than just circuits and chips, Squyres hopes.

"Do I wish I could go? Oh yeah, in a heartbeat."

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