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Unwrapping pictures from Mars for Christmas

Publication date: Mar 14, 2006 2:42:41 PM

Beagle 2 is due to land on Mars on Christmas Day at 0254 GMT, and Mars Express is due to go into orbit around Mars at 0300 GMT the same day. Dr Andrew Coates, of University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, is the lead scientist for Beagle 2’s ‘eyes’ (the stereo camera system on the lander), and is available for media interviews ahead of its landing on Mars on Christmas Day.

As well as being responsible for the camera system, the UCL team will also be studying water in the Martian environment using a two-pronged approach, both using the lander’s ‘eyes’ to detect water on the planet, and the orbiter to measure how quickly water escapes from the atmosphere.

“The first result after the Blur call sign (a 9-note call sign composed by Blur which will be among the first data Beagle transmits from Mars) should be our wrap-around picture of Beagle 2 and its landing site,” says Dr Coates. “This will be taken by our camera using a pop-up wide angle mirror, very early in the mission. We hope to be ‘unwrapping’ this picture on Christmas morning to show Beagle 2’s view of where it has landed.”

During Beagle 2’s first night on Mars, the cameras will be used to ‘steer by the stars’ as scientists locate the lander’s position more precisely than its 174x106m target area on the surface. This celestial navigation is the same technique used by Charles Darwin’s Beagle during its voyages, which led to his book ‘On the Origin of Species.’

Dr Coates adds: “We at UCL are in a pivotal position to look for water on Mars, as we are the only scientific group involved in both lander and orbiter. With our ‘eyes’ on the surface we will look for water in the atmosphere, and our involvement with ASPERA (a device created to study the interaction between the solar wind and the Martian atmosphere) on the orbiter will allow us to measure how quickly water escapes from the atmosphere, scavenged away by the solar wind. Combined with other instruments on the orbiter, which can look for water up to 5km under the surface, Europe is going to make vital new discoveries about water on Mars with this mission. We will have a key role in this.”

Building for the surface of Mars has been a major challenge. Stereo camera system project manager Dr Andrew Griffiths says: “Our cameras and filter wheels will have to survive huge temperature swings, from -90 to 0 degrees between night and day on the surface. We also have to cope with dust and have installed, and tested, windscreen wipers for the cameras to reduce this. Everything is working fine and we can't wait for Beagle 2 to land on the surface.”

Notes to editors:

  1. The stereo cameras will measure the three-dimensional shape of the landing site after the first few days, to locate the rocks which Beagle 2 will study. Later in the mission the cameras will be used to help find what the rocks are made of, and will look for water in the Martian atmosphere.
  2. Water is important on Mars as it is a key ingredient for life. Scientists think that 3.8 billion years ago Mars had flowing water on the surface, a thick atmosphere and a protecting magnetic shield like the Earth's. Now, all that is gone and Mars is dry and barren, has a thin carbon dioxide rich atmosphere, and has no large scale magnetic field. However recent discoveries by other spacecraft have shown that there may still be water, probably in the form of permafrost, within a metre of the surface in the Martian polar regions. There may even be water covered by snow packs on the surface. All this points to better conditions for life on Mars 3.8 billion years ago - and a very slim chance now too.
  3. If you wish to speak to the UCL team working on Beagle, contact details are as follows:
    Dr Andrew Coates - Beagle 2 Stereo Camera System lead investigator, and Mars Express ASPERA co-investigator:
    01483 204 145
    07788 448 318
    ajc@mssl.ucl.ac.uk
    Andrew Griffiths – Beagle 2 Stereo Camera System project manager:
    01483 204 288
    adg@mssl.ucl.ac.uk