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European Mars mission looks for lessons in polar lander loss

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A Soyuz rocket (top) will carry the Mars Express orbiter and lander to the red planet in 2003.  

December 29, 1999
Web posted at: 5:51 p.m. EST (2251 GMT)

(CNN) -- In 2003, the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to send a low-cost orbiter and lander pair to Mars to search for water and life. Sound familiar?

European space officials said they intend to learn lessons from the December failure of NASA's Mars Polar Lander, which the U.S. space agency was unable to regain contact with after it entered the martian atmosphere.

"Our hearts go out to our colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory over the probable loss of Mars Polar Lander," Rudi Schmidt, Mars Express project manager, said earlier this month.

But he acknowledged that risk will always be a part of any space mission.

"We at Mars Express will forge ahead, taking on board all the lessons that we can from the polar lander failure," Schmidt said.

Mars Polar Lander was built in line with NASA's "faster, cheaper, better" philosophy, which accepts a higher margin of risk for unmanned space project in exchange for lower cost and more frequent opportunities for space exploration.

The lander's sister probe, the Climate Orbiter, was lost due to human error when mission personnel failed to convert numerical data from English units into metric.

Mars Express, due for launch in June 2003, is also being built more quickly and cheaply than any of ESA's previous comparable planetary missions.

"If one does a mission cheap and fast then risk goes up," Schmidt said.

Both missions are part of an international effort to explore Mars during the first decade of next century.

"We must learn from the recent failures and work even harder to safeguard the future missions," said Marcello Coradini, solar system manager at ESA and former chairman of the International Mars Exploration Working Group.

Mars Express is scheduled for launch from Russia aboard a Soyuz Fregat rocket in June 2003. Arrival at Mars is planned for the following December.

The mission's main objective is to search for underground water from orbit and drop a lander on the martian surface. Seven scientific instruments onboard the orbiting spacecraft will perform a series of remote sensing experiments designed to shed new light on the martian atmosphere and the planet's structure and geology, according to ESA.

The lander, called Beagle 2 after the ship in which Charles Darwin explored uncharted areas of the Earth in 1831, will "bounce down" on the martian surface, cushioned by airbags. The technology is similar to that used for NASA's successful Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997.

After coming to rest on the surface, Beagle 2 will perform exobiology and geochemistry research.

Europe's Mars Express will be the cheapest ever mission to Mars and is seen as a pilot project for new methods of funding and working, according to ESA.




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