Nasa joins search for life on Mars

The world’s most sophisticated—and expensive—car will begin its historic journey today, when it is blasted towards Mars on an American Delta II rocket.

Nasa’s Mars Exploration Rover is due to reach the Red Planet in January, when it will start trundling across the Martian surface searching for signs of water and life.

A second, identical rover is also to be launched this month.
Both craft follow in the wake of Britain’s Beagle 2 probe, which is due to land on Mars on Boxing Day. In addition, a Japanese satellite, Nozomi, will join Europe’s Mars Express in orbit round the planet in the New Year.

This international flotilla has been timed to take advantage of Mars’s close approach to Earth and all are intended to uncover evidence that the planet was, or still is, home to life. Much is expected of the missions, although all face considerable danger, particularly from the Great Galactic Ghoul—scientists’ nickname for the jinx that has cursed many Martian missions.

Of 35 attempts to reach the planet, only 12 have succeeded. Of these, nine were attempts to land on the surface, but only three—all American—survived. The rest crashed or exploded in orbit.

‘It’s not a trip to the beach on a Sunday afternoon,’ said Ed Weiler, Nasa’s associate administrator for space science. ‘Landing on Mars is very, very difficult… It’s a graveyard for spacecraft.’

However, given Nasa’s experience with Mars, most experts believe at least one of the rovers should make it to the surface intact this January. The 5ft-long, six-wheeled vehicles will operate as automated field geologists. Each has a robot arm, which will be used to identify minerals and possible fossilised lifeforms. Both have also been designed for lengthy operations. They will travel several kilometres over the Martian surface, in contrast to the tiny 1997 Sojourner rover that moved only a few dozen metres from its landing zone. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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