Mars Global Survey image of the Isidis Basin
Europeans pick landing site for Mars mission
Impression of the Beagle 2 on Mars
(CNN) -- The European Space Agency this week chose a gently sloping plain near the martian equator as a target site for the organization's first red planet lander.
ESA's Beagle 2 would hitch a ride on the Mars Express spacecraft and touch down in the Isidis Basin, where it will sniff air, dig dirt and bake samples for evidence of past or present life.
"It was not the first site. We had a long, painful process. But looking through various landing sites, this is the best to date," said Mark Sims, Beagle 2 project scientist. The decision is only "90 percent certain," he added. The team will announce a final decision in December.
To select the site, mission scientists reviewed pictures taken by previous red planet landers and the Global Surveyor, a satellite that has orbited Mars since 1997.
"It's an interesting site. There's a nice selection of rocks, potentially a flood basin, the slopes are smooth and fairly gentle," Sims said.
The ESA sought to find a locale both scientifically interesting and safe to land. Unfortunately, the most intriguing sites -- those identified this year as possible sources of liquid water springs -- are located in dangerously steep or rocky terrain.
The sandy dunes of Isidis, just north of the equator and east of Syrtis Major, a prominent dark feature visible from Earth telescopes, could soften the blow when the airbag-protected Beagle 2 bounces to a halt on Mars just over three years from now.
The Beagle 2 might have some company. NASA plans to land two rovers on Mars at roughly the same time as the ESA probe's visit, slated to arrive in slightly more than three years. The U.S. space agency has yet to make a decision on a landing site, but considers Isidis a prime candidate.
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European Space Agency
Mars Global Surveyor
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