After travelling for more than 400 million kilometres, the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft has nearly arrived at the Red Planet. Things are about to get pretty busy. On December 19, the Beagle 2 lander will detach from the spacecraft and plunge through the Martian atmosphere six days later. At the same time that Beagle 2 is making its way down to the surface, the Mars Express orbiter will begin its aerobraking maneuvers to get into its final orbit around the Red Planet.
After a journey of 400 million km, ESA's Mars Express is now approaching its final destination. On 19 December, the spacecraft is scheduled to release the Beagle 2 lander it has been carrying since its launch on 2 June.
At 9:31 CET, ESA's ground control team at Darmstadt (Germany) will send the command for the Beagle 2 lander to separate from Mars Express. A pyrotechnic device will be fired to slowly release a loaded spring, which will gently push Beagle 2 away from the mother spacecraft.
Data on the spacecraft's position and speed will be used by mission engineers to assess whether the lander was successfully released. In addition, the onboard Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) should provide an image showing the lander slowly moving away. The image is expected to be available mid-afternoon.
Beagle 2 will then continue its journey towards the surface of Mars, where it is expected to land on 25 December, early in the morning. At the same time, the Mars Express orbiter should be manoeuvring to enter into orbit around Mars.
In view of the complexity of this operation, the Mars Express control team has been trained to deal with the eventuality that separation might not be achieved at the first attempt. If that did turn out to be the case, there is a series of procedures that has already been set up and tested for completing the manoeuvre successfully within the subsequent 40 hours.
The "separation" event can be followed live at ESA/ESOC on Friday 19 December from 8:30 to 15:00. A videoconference will link the control centre at Darmstadt with ESA Headquarters in Paris (F), and ESA/ESRIN at Frascati (I). Media wishing to attend are asked to complete the attached reply form and fax it to the Communication Office at the establishment of their choice.
Highlights of this event will be streamed over the Internet at http://mars.esa.int at the following times:
09:09 UT - 09:32 UT
11:25 UT - 11.47 UT
12:00 UT - 12:10 UT
As well as live streaming of key events, the Mars Express site will have daily news, features, images, videos and more.