Mars Express Mission

The Mars Express spacecraft is part of a mission to Mars that was launched in June 2003 and developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency. After the 2,292-pound (1,042-kg) spacecraft arrived at the Red Planet in December 2003, its scientific instruments began to study the atmosphere and surface of Mars from a polar orbit. The main objective of Mars Express is to search from orbit for suspected subsurface water locations. The spacecraft also delivered a small lander spacecraft to investigate more closely the most suitable candidate site.

This small lander spacecraft was named Beagle 2 in honor of the famous ship in which the British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82) made his great voyage of scientific discovery. After coming to rest on the surface of Mars, Beagle 2 was to have performed exobiology and geochemistry research. The Beagle 2 was scheduled to land on December 25, 2003. However, following deployment of the Beagle 2 from its mother spacecraft, ESA ground controllers were unable to communicate with the probe and it was declared lost on February 6, 2004. Despite the problems with Beagle 2, the Mars Express spacecraft has functioned very well in orbit around the planet and accomplished its main mission of global high-resolution pho-togeology and mineralogical mapping of the Martian surface. In August 2004, the Mars Express also relayed images back to Earth from NASA's Opportunity (MER-B) surface rover as part of an international interplanetary networking demonstration.

In December 2006, scientists announced that data from the pioneering subsurface sounding radar altimeter (called MARSIS) on board ESA's

Mars Express orbiter indicated that the Red Planet has an older, craggier face buried beneath its smooth surface. This instrument has provided important new clues about the still mysterious geological history of Mars. MARSIS is the first subsurface radar used to explore a planet, and its investigative technique involves an evaluation of the echoes of transmitted radio waves that have penetrated below the planet's surface. The instrument's data strongly suggest that ancient impact craters lie beneath the smooth, low plains of Mars's northern hemisphere. MARSIS found evidence that these buried impact craters—ranging in diameter from about 81 miles (130 km) to 292 miles (470 km)—are present under much of the northern lowlands of Mars. In contrast to Earth, Mars displays a striking difference between its northern and southern hemispheres. Almost the entire southern hemisphere of the Red Planet has rough, heavily cratered highlands, while most of the planet's northern hemisphere is smoother and lower in elevation. The new finding by the Mars Express orbiter brings planetary scientists an important step closer to understanding one of the most interesting and enduring mysteries about the geological evolution and history of Mars.

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