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Red planet rivalry? European space official fires salvos at NASA

Artists' concepts of the Mars 2003 rover (top) and the Beagle 2  

(CNN) -- A European Space Agency scientist predicted that Europe's first mission to Mars will scientifically outperform NASA's rovers, despite its cheaper cost, smaller size and lack of mobility.

NASA representatives declined to return the fire, saying the two missions were complementary, not competitive.

If all goes according to plan, the red planet will host both missions simultaneously in 2003. As ESA's lander digs soil samples and sniffs the air for signs of water and life, two NASA rovers will trek around, doing geology studies on martian rocks and looking for indirect evidence of water in the planet's past.

"When its size, both actual and financial, is considered, it would be easy to believe Beagle 2 could not be aiming to accomplish much other than just raise a flag on Mars," Colin Pillinger told the British Association for the Advancement of Science this week.

"Unlike (the NASA) robots, Beagle 2 won't be going sightseeing. It is intent on discovering where there is or was life on Mars. It is happy to trade measurements for mobility."

Compared to the stationary Beagle 2, NASA's rovers are "much less scientifically accomplished," said Pillinger, a professor at Open University in England.

Beagle 2 is expected to cost under $50 million and weigh 30 kg (66 pounds). NASA estimates the price tag of both twin rovers at about $600 million. Each weighs 150 kg (330 pounds).

The Beagle 2's instruments will provide superior tests to detect past or present life, whether in baking soil samples, analyzing chemical isotopes or measuring atmospheric methane, which could reveal the existence of present-day life elsewhere on the planet, he said.

NASA officials expressed surprise at the criticism but took it in stride, saying the two had different scientific objectives.

Comparing the two missions "is like apple and oranges," said the scientist in charge of the instruments on the Mars rovers.

"The Beagle 2 is excellent, ambitious. Ours are excellent, but we have different instrument packages and different aims. I don't see the material for the controversy," said Steven Squyres, a Cornell University astronomer.

The mobility of the rovers, expected to cruise up to 1 km (.6 miles) a day, will give them an opportunity study many different kinds of rocks, he said.

Unlike Beagle 2, however, the rovers won't search for direct signs of life or water.

"We're not trying to detect water per se. We are looking at the geology and minerology that would indicate the presence of water activity in the past," Squyres said.

Why not look directly for water or life, like Beagle 2?

"The search is difficult to achieve in a single mission. When we do a mission that is aimed at finding extant life, which probably requires liquid water at the surface, we will know exactly the place to go," Squyres said.

A NASA spokesperson expressed surprise at the Pillinger pillory.

"We're working closely with ESA on the Mars missions," he said. "I don't know why Pillinger did that. Maybe because he is looking for funding."

He humorously dismissed speculation that a NASA rover would use a RAT (Rock Abrasion Tool) to snip the cord of a soil-burrowing mole attached to the Beagle.

Europeans pick landing site for Mars mission
September 14, 2000
NASA, European Mars missions to overlap
August 2, 2000
Rover mission headed to Mars in 2003
July 27, 2000
NASA postpones Mars mission announcement
July 21, 2000
European Mars mission looks for lessons in polar lander loss
December 29, 1999

European Space Agency
Beagle 2
Cornell University
British Association for the Advancement of Science

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