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The Beagle has Landed

The Beagle 2 lander carrying an onboard mass spectrometer will ride to Mars as part of the European Mars Express mission in 2003. The British-led Beagle 2 project is the probe for the Mars Express Spacecraft due to be launched in June 2003 from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan in the former USSR. The lander's name is taken from HMS Beagle used by Charles Darwin to undertake discoveries in natural history which led to the writing of "On the Origin of Species".

The probe consists of the Entry, Descent and Landing System (EDLS) and the lander itself. The aim of the mission is to study the geology of the planet for evidence relating to past life on Mars. To achieve this, the Beagle 2 lander has a robotic arm for manipulating scientific instruments and the mole for collecting samples. With a landed mass of less than 30kg, Beagle 2 represents the most ambitious science payload to systems mass ratio ever attempted.

The clam-shaped lander (below) is composed of a toughened outer shell on an aluminium honeycomb core. Within the inner shell a mass spectrometer; three cameras, seven environmental sensors, five solar panels, a robotic arm, telecommunications and electronics systems are housed. The two halves of the lander, lid and base are joined by a spring-loaded hinge which, irrespective of the orientation which Beagle 2 finds itself on Mars, will open the clam in its correct position.

In a return to the first mass spectrometer developed in Britian, the design for Beagle 2's mass spectrometer is a minature 90 degree sector instrument having a magnet of less than 1 kg made from a rare earth metal alloy and an ion pump using the same material. It will embody the principle of the dual inlet whereby light element samples and standards are sequentially compared for high precision isotopic measurements and operate in static vacuum mode for greatest sensitivity.

Professor Colin Pillinger, who leads the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute at the Open University, and his group have developed the mass spectrometer and the environmental sensors. The money to build the lander comes from the Wellcome Trust, the medical research charity which has funded a large portion of the Human Genome Project. Building the instrument could lead to extremely useful medical spin-offs.

"The whole point is how the instrument could be developed further," says Professor Colin Pillinger. "It will be small, robust, light and automated. It could be sterilised and we may in the end be able to build something that could turn into a personal mass spectrometer". Britain has a long tradition in building mass spectrometers stretching back to Nobel Laureate
Francis W. Aston in 1919.

More information can be found at the project's web site:


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