Beagle 2 is on its way to Mars. The British-built spacecraft separated successfully from the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter earlier today, beginning its descent for a landing on the red planet's surface due to take place on Christmas Day.
"We have separation!" That was the message from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, to announce that Beagle was flying independently from its Mars Express "mother ship".
"The spacecraft is rotating like a spinning top approximately once every four seconds," said a news release put out by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the agency that coordinates strategic science investment in the UK. "This motion has the effect of stabilizing the spacecraft's motion during the remainder of its journey to Mars and its entry into the planet's atmosphere."
The separation marked the first hurdle at the beginning of a tense week for the Beagle 2 team. From now on, Beagle 2 will be on its own and looking after itself in terms of stability, power, thermal control and entry sequencing, said the PPARC release.
Mars Express was launched on a Soyuz-Fregat launcher from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on June 2. Its journey from Earth was 250 million miles (400 million kilometers).
Beagle 2 will descend to the surface, entering the Mars atmosphere at more than 12,500 miles per hour (20,000 kilometers per hour). When its speed has fallen to 1,000 miles per hour (1,600 kilometers per hour) parachutes will deploy to slow it further.
Finally large gas-filled bags will inflate to protect it as it bounces to a halt on the landing site.
While Beagle 2 is on the ground, Mars Express will image the entire surface at high resolution and selected areas at super resolution, including determining the structure of the sub-surface to a depth of a few miles.
Beagle 2's assignment is to determine the geology and the mineral and chemical composition of the landing site, search for life signatures, and study the weather and climate.
Beagle 2 was named to commemorate Charles Darwin's five-year voyage around the world in HMS Beagle (1831-36). The outcome of Darwin's groundbreaking studies, including his observations of the unique wildlife on the Galapagos Islands, was the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859), which described his revolutionary theories of evolution.
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