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Mars Express dodges solar bullet

From The European Space Agency’s Mars Express Mission is in good health after the orbiter’s two star trackers were down during last week’s solar storms.
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Europe’s Mars Express spacecraft has overcome the effects of last week’s solar flares, which temporarily knocked out navigation equipment aboard the orbiter while leaving the mission’s Beagle 2 lander unscathed.

RESEARCHERS WITH THE European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express mission said their spacecraft is in good health after solar storms blinded the orbiter’s two star trackers for up to 15 hours. Mission controllers said both instruments, which trackers are crucial to keeping Mars Express oriented properly, are now working properly and there appears to be no long-term damage. The flares also delayed a scheduled Beagle 2 checkout procedure, but caused no ill effects otherwise.

“The Beagle 2 is designed to be radiation hard, but of course the mission manager will not be happy until we turn (the lander) back on in a week or two,” said Mark Sims, referring to himself during a mission update Tuesday morning. Sims actually is the Beagle 2 mission manager.

Sims and other ESA officials discussed the status of Mars Express and Beagle 2 during the mission update, which was held in London, England. The mission is currently six weeks away from its Dec. 25 arrival at the red planet, which the Mars Express orbiter will begin circling as the lander plummets toward the surface.

John Reddie, ESA’s Mars Express flight director, said engineers are still working to solve a power problem that struck the orbiter in July. That affliction resulted in a 30 percent drop in the craft’s power generation.

“The situation is the same as it was, but there has been no degradation either,” Reddie said. While engineers are working to remedy the problem, should it persist up to Mars Express’ red planet arrival the spacecraft will still be able to perform up to 85 percent of its original mission, he added. Ground controllers may also put the orbiter in a safe mode during periods of power loss such as eclipse, when Mars blocks sunlight from reaching the probe’s solar panels.


Meanwhile, Beagle 2 controllers are preparing for some pivotal mission moments coming up in the next few weeks. In early December, Mars Express is scheduled to make minor change in trajectory to aim the lander at Mars. The orbiter is then expected to release Beagle 2 on Dec. 19, snapping a few grainy black and white pictures as the probe pulls away from its mother ship and onward toward the Martian plains of Isidis Planitia.

ESA officials said Mars Express should still be able to go into orbit around Mars should Beagle 2 fail to disengage, but the craft would not be able to reach its optimum orbital position or conduct the amount of science planned.

“So it’s a critical maneuver,” said Colin Pillinger, Beagle 2 lead scientist, of the lander’s release and Mars descent. “The spacecraft will aim us at [Isidis Planitia], a region just above the equator in an ancient impact crater.”

Pillinger also said that the Mars Express/Beagle 2 team is at work preparing a dedicated media center for the Mars mission in order to readily announce findings as they come in.

InsertArt(2066935)Launched on June 2, 2003, the Mars Express mission is an ESA effort to study Mars and search not only for elusive water beneath the surface, but also for any traces of life - past or present - on the planet.

“We’re dealing with that magnificent question, ‘Is there life on the next planet in our Solar System?’” Pillinger said, adding that instruments aboard Beagle 2 are designed to identify any type of organic matter. ESA scientists hope the lander will help settle debate over the evidence of biology in Martian meteorites by eliminating the possibility that the rocks were merely contaminated by Earth organisms when they hit our planet.

The Mars Express mission is just one of four expeditions from three countries to arrive at Mars by January 2004. Japan’s Nozomi craft, though still working through its own power problems, is due at Mars in mid-December. Then NASA chimes in with its twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, each set to arrive in January.

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