Mars craft ready for mission

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The Independent Online

European space officials have made public 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 away prove the spacecraft's camera is in working order before it begins orbiting Mars.

On 19 December, Mars Express will send its British-built Beagle 2 lander to the surface to look for signs of life.Mars Express will then steer away from the planet and early on 25 December will fire its main engine for about 30 minutes to put it into Martian orbit.

The spacecraft, launched on 2 June on a Russian Soyuz-Fregat rocket from Kazakhstan, weathered solar eruptions last month that bombarded it with high-energy particles, temporarily disrupting its computers. A drop in electrical power to about 70 per cent is not expected to derail the mission, officials said.

The flight operations director, Michael McKay, said controllers have been rehearsing in computer simulations how to deal with potential obstacles to the €300m (£210m) mission. "We have flown every possible contingency, and some impossible ones," Mr McKay said.

The 65kg (143lb) Beagle 2 will use a robotic arm to test for evidence of organic matter and water, while Mars Express orbits overhead. During its working life of 687 days, controllers hopeMars Express will send back detailed pictures of the surface and use radar to scan for underground water.

Scientists think Mars, which has frozen water in its ice-caps, may have had liquid water and appropriate conditions for life billions of years ago. It is thought water may also still exist as underground ice.