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Europe begins building Mars lander

Drawing of the Beagle 2
Drawing of the Beagle 2  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Taking a leap forward in the study of Mars, European engineers began construction on the Beagle 2, a lander slated to hit the red planet in 2003.

The robot craft will probe rocks, dig into the soil and sniff the air, checking for organic matter and other life-related chemical compounds like atmospheric methane.

The Beagle 2, named after Charles Darwin's sea ship HMS Beagle, will hitch a ride with the Mars Express, a European Space Agency craft that will orbit the red planet.

"We hope that when it arrives on Mars at the end of next year, we will finally be able to answer the eternal question: Is there, or was there, life on Mars." said Colin Pillinger, a British scientist involved in the Beagle 2 mission:

Beagle 2 construction began in late July, at the Open University in Great Britain, in a custom-built laboratory with strict environmental controls and sterilization procedures.

"The assembly room will keep Beagle 2 free of terrestrial microorganisms and other forms of contamination," Pillinger, an Open University professor, said.

Meticulous precautions are taken so the visiting probes do not bring along unintended stowaways -- microorganisms that could conceivably survive the trip and live on Mars.

"We don't want to contaminate the planets we go to," said John Bennett, a team scientist with ESA's Mars Express project.

A handful of planet researchers speculate that it could have already happened, since numerous Russian and U.S. landers have touched down on Mars since the 1970s.

Other Earth visitors could be on Mars during Beagle 2's 180-day mission. The dog-sized craft is scheduled to hit the martian dirt in late December 2003, about the same time that NASA expects to land twin rovers on the red planet.

In less than six months, the finished Beagle 2 will join the Mars Express satellite on a trip to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, from where the pair should launch in May or June, ESA scientists said.




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