NASA, European Mars missions to overlap
Artist's concepts of the Mars 2003 rover (top) and the Beagle 2
(CNN) -- Two landers should descend to Mars within a month of each other in late 2003 and early 2004, scratching, sniffing, and digging under the surface for signs of life and water.
The independent missions, one managed by the European Space Agency and the other by NASA, aim to place landers at separate locations. Beagle 2 will remain stationary as it hunts for signs of past or present life. Meanwhile, NASA's rover will hit the road in search of liquid water. Scientists say the two areas of research will complement each other.
The Beagle 2, set to hitch a ride to the red planet with the Mars Express orbiter, will probe rocks, dig into the soil and sniff the air, looking for organic matter and other life-related chemical compounds like atmospheric methane.
"It has everything a human field biologist has and then much, much more," said Steven Squyres, principal investigator for ESA's Beagle 2, in a statement.
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To search for samples, Beagle 2 will use camera eyes to guide a robot arm to a suitable rock. It will then drill and retrieve a core sample from the interior of the rock and place it under intense heat in the presence of oxygen.
The chemical cooking should allow Beagle 2 to look for telltale signs of organic compounds. Different carbon-bearing materials burn at different temperatures, said Beagle scientist Ian Wright.
The mobile NASA rover will carry five instruments to analyze rock and soil samples on the surface, traveling up to 110 yards (100 meters) a day as it looks for evidence of liquid water.
Soon after landing, the rover is expected to beam back a virtual tour of its landing site, a high-resolution 360-degree, panoramic color and infrared image.
Despite their differences, the two probes have some common features. Both will land with a bounce, cushioned by inflatable airbags. Both will use grinders to remove the weathered surface of rocks and expose their pristine interiors.
"There is no hope of finding carbonaceous compounds (associated with primitive, microscopic life) on the surface because it's all been burnt by the sun," said Beagle 2 scientist Andre Brack, in a statement. "There's no protective magnetosphere or ozone later in the martian atmosphere."
Many questions remain for the two missions. NASA is considering sending a second rover. And neither ESA nor NASA has selected landing sites for the probes.
But the recent discovery of visual signs of water seeping or bubbling to the surface of Mars in the recent past has given new impetus to scientists planning both missions.
Rover and Beagle 2 team members said they will both consider landing their probes near possible wet spots, revealed in images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor, which continues to orbit the red planet.
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