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On to Mars
Sunday, June 01, 2003
Once every 26 months, a window opens when it's economical to launch spacecraft to mars. Last time, it was the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission, and before that it was the ill-fated polar lander and climate orbiter missions. This window, there are three missions that are being sent to the red planet, all due for launch in the next month.
First up is the launch of Mars Express, a European orbiter. Mars express will carry and release the Beagle 2, a British lander. On Christmas eve, US time, this lander will bounce to a landing. It contains a robot arm, and a small mechanical mole that can burrow underneath the soil.
The US has Europe beat on the robotics front, however. On the 8th and 24th, we'll be launching two rovers. They'll be landing in January, on the 3rd and 24th, respectively. Both will use airbags for landing (like mars pathfinder did), and will drive off. Although the high-level driving decisions such as where to go will be made on earth, the rovers will be able to drive short distances on their own, automatically dodging obstacles.
These rovers will be able to travel hundreds of meters, allowing scientists to assess the terrain quite a distance from where the landing occurred. While this will probably lead to significantly less naming of rocks (anyone remember Yogi?), but it's a net win for science.
The only thing that I don't like about these missions is the lack of a camera on the landing vehicle. While this makes perfect scientific and engineering sense (the computers are kept on the rover, rather than on the base), it means that we won't get to see the rover itself, as it moves around the surface. Too bad.
One neat thing that all three missions share in common is the use of a communications network in orbit over mars. Where pathfinder had to send messages to earth directly, this new round of missions will communicate through relay satellites. This will allow the landers to use more space for science.
If you're interested in watching the launches live, the first two links above give you the Mars Express webcast and Nasa TV, respectively. Generally, these go to live coverage a few hours before launch. (1:45 PM EDT for Mars Express). Spaceflight Now is a great site for coverage of breaking space news. It's mission status centers give minute-by-minute coverage of launches and landings, which is quite useful when one can't view streaming TV.
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