Spectrometer grant very Wellcome in the search for life
ESA's Mars Express mission has been boosted through a grant from UK medical research charity the Wellcome Trust. As well as helping ESA find life on the red planet, the £2.6m grant could help improve medical care here on Earth.
The cash will be used to develop a miniature mass spectrometer and place it aboard ESA's Beagle II lander when it touches down on Mars. The spectrometer - just 5kg in weight - will be able to sense materials in the planet's surface, a vital capability in the search for life. In the longer term, it is hoped that the technology could be used medically to detect different protein structures in the body.
"The whole point is how the instrument could be developed further," Professor Colin Pillinger, head of the Planetary and Science Reseach Institute at the UK's Open University told the BBC on 24 May - just a year before blast off. "It will be small, robust, light and automated. It could be sterilised and we may in the end be able to build something that could turn into a personal mass spectrometer".
Ice has been found on Mars and Beagle 2 will be capable of burrowing into the planet's rocky surface down to where it may be found. The Beagle will land on Isidis Planitia, a large flat region that overlies the boundary between the areas of Mars known as the ancient highlands and the northern plains.
Choosing the right landing site is obviously critical in the search for life. Beagle 2 is due to land in the spring and the latitude of Isidis Planitia should be warm enough for the lander to work properly at that time of year. As it is not too rocky, the Beagle should be able to land safely.
Most importantly, the region appears to be a sedimentary basin which means that if there was once primitive life on the planet, there's a good chance of finding the traces here.
Beagle 2 will ride to Mars as part of the ESA Mars Express mission. It will take off from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan on 23 May 2003.