Packing for Mars

14 March 2003

Mars Express diary 5

If you had to launch something into space what would you take to the launch site? This is exactly the question now facing the team as they prepare for the move to Kazakhstan where the Mars Express spacecraft will be launched. Don McCoy reports.

"Imagine being part of a team of around 50 people responsible for finalising the plans for the last months on Earth of the Mars Express before it departs on its interplanetary mission. You must think about all the things that could go wrong, so just in case you need to have extra parts, extra tools and sometimes extra people.

"You must also think about what you yourself will need during the weeks spent in a remote location in Kazakastan. How many socks should I pack? Which technical manuals should I take? How fast will my e-mail connection be? What happens if one of the computers breaks down?

"Planning for a launch campaign is not easy. For months the team members have been preparing themselves for the big day when we fly off to the launch site and begin the final preparations. Our team's job is mainly concerned with the spacecraft but there are other teams also hard at work preparing the launcher for shipment from its assembly line in Russia to the launch site in Baikonur.

"The team at ESA's mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, is also busy. It will be their job to take control of the satellite and to track its course some 90 minutes after lift-off, so they must be ready. In preparation they are going over and over simulations of the various mission phases so that they will be able to deal with any contingency.

"Then there are the scientists! They are fully involved in planning how their instruments will be used once Mars Express is in space. Excitement is already approaching a peak and we still have nine months to go before Mars Express will be in orbit!

"There is still much to do, but at least the long list of items to take to Baikonur has been completed so we are sure not to forget anything. There is so much we need to take; in all it will weigh around 80 tonnes and fill an Antonov 124 aircraft.

"The next instalment will tell you about the flight to Kazakhstan and give some inside news on life at the launch site in Baikonur."

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