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Spacecraft starts final leg of Mars probe

December 20, 2003

LONDON, Dec 19: A British spacecraft the size of an open umbrella began the final leg of its mission to find life on Mars as it successfully broke free on Friday from the mother ship that has carried it 100 million kms from earth.

Beagle 2 parted from the Mars Express rocket and set off alone to cover the remaining distance to the Red Planet, where it should parachute down on Christmas morning and start broadcasting a tune by Britpop band Blur.

In the intervening days, it will be out of touch with earth because the radio it carries is too small to cover the distance.

“We can confirm that we have Beagle 2 separation,” said Mike McKay, flight director of the mission, talking to a gathering of scientists in London by video link from the headquarters of the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany.

The first sign scientists will have of the success or failure of their project will be when either Mars Express or the US Mars mission rocket Mars Odyssey — both carrying powerful radios — enters Mars orbit, antennae straining for the Blur tune.

Back on earth, the scientists will be biting their finger nails and praying in the silent hours after the scheduled landing.

But once they get the signal, emotion will be packed away for the duration as they instruct the probe to get to work.

The lander is packed with state of the art scientific instruments that will scrape, bore and bake samples from the surface of Mars seeking signs that there was once life on the planet.

At its heart is a mass spectrometer used to measure the mass and abundance of atoms and molecules on planetary surfaces.

“This mission is very important indeed to mankind,” Sir Patrick Moore, Britain’s best known astronomer, said at a gathering of scientists at the Royal Geographical Society.

“If it finds life on Mars, it will prove that it (life) is widespread in the universe.”—Reuters