European space officials on Wednesday showed off the first pictures of Mars sent back by the Mars Express spacecraft as it heads for a Christmas rendezvous with the Red Planet.
The pictures, taken from 3.36 million miles (5.5 million kilometers) away, show little more than part of a polar ice cap — but officials weren’t looking for high-quality details. Instead, the images prove the spacecraft’s German-made high-resolution camera is in working order before it begins orbiting Mars and snapping pictures close up.
The camera test, performed Monday, was one of many checks and rehearsals ahead of a sequence of intricate navigational maneuvers starting Dec. 19. That’s when Mars Express will turn loose its British-built Beagle 2 lander toward the Martian surface on a mission to probe for signs of extraterrestrial life.
Mars Express will then steer away from a collision with the planet and on Dec. 25 will fire its main engine for about 30 minutes to put it into Martian orbit.
“We will have to carry out some very precise navigational operations,” Gaele Winters, the European Space Agency’s director for technical operations and support, said at the agency’s mission control center in Darmstadt in western Germany. “You will understand there is a certain level of tension in the center.”
Previous attempts to find signs of life have been inconclusive. Of 34 unmanned American, Soviet and Russian missions to Mars since 1960, two-thirds ended in failure. In 1976, twin U.S. Viking landers searched for life but sent back inconclusive results.
Beagle 2 is not the only space craft heading to Mars. Two American Mars rover craft are due to arrive in January, and Japan’s trouble-plagued Nozomi orbiter, launched in 1998, continues on its way despite technical problems.
The Mars Express mission, which cost about $345 million, is an attempt to demonstrate that Europe can have an effective — and relatively inexpensive — space exploration program.
The spacecraft, launched June 2 atop a Russian Soyuz-Fregat rocket from Kazakhstan, has weathered solar eruptions that bombarded it with high-energy particles last month, temporarily disrupting its computers.
In another hitch, solar panels are only generating about 70 percent of the electricity they were supposed to, but officials said that was not expected to derail the mission either.
Flight operations director Michael McKay said controllers have been using computer simulations to rehearse how to deal with potential obstacles — including failure of the main engine used to slow the craft into orbit.
If that happens, controllers figured out, the mission can use the craft’s smaller maneuvering rockets.
“We have flown every possible contingency, and some impossible ones,” McKay said.
The 143-pound (65-kilogram) Beagle 2 will use a robotic arm to gather and sample rocks for evidence of organic matter and water, while Mars Express orbits overhead. During its working life — planned for one Martian year, or 687 Earth days — it’s hoped Mars Express will send back detailed overhead pictures of the surface and use a powerful radar to scan for underground water.
Scientists think Mars, which has frozen water in its ice caps, might have once had liquid water and appropriate conditions for life but lost it billions of years ago. It is thought water may also still exist as underground ice.