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Mars Express lift off
Science & Exploration

Europe reclaims a stake in Mars exploration

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ESA / Science & Exploration / Space Science / Mars Express

From the Greeks more than two thousand years ago to Eugene Antoniadi in the mid 1900s, Europeans have made many important observations of Mars with the naked eye and through Earth-bound telescopes. They have even contributed their fair share of speculation and fantasy about the planet in a fine tradition beginning in 1897 with the publication of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells in which hostile Martians invade Earth.

Europe, however, has never sent its own spacecraft to Mars – that is until now. The European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter was launched on 2 June 2003 and it has been playing a key role in an international exploration programme since.

Research institutes throughout Europe provided the instruments on board the orbiter. Some were first developed for the ill-fated Russian spacecraft, Mars '96. Now upgraded, they provide remote sensing of the atmosphere, ground and up to 5 kilometres below the surface, to a degree of accuracy never before achieved.

The information gleaned will help answer many outstanding questions about Mars, including the fate of water that once flowed freely on the planet’s surface early in its history.

Mars Express also carried a lander, Beagle 2. It would have been the first lander since NASA's two Viking probes in the 1970s to look specifically for evidence of past or present life. Unfortunately, Beagle 2 was declared lost after it failed to make contact with orbiting spacecraft and ground-based radio telescopes.

European astronomers: Mars discovery highlights

Astronomer Date Country Discovery
Nicolaus Copernicus 1473-1543 Poland Described the motion of the planets, including Mars, around the Sun
Tycho Brahe 1546-1601 Denmark First to map accurately the movement of Mars across the sky
Johannes Kepler 1561-1630 Germany Worked out the orbit of Mars
Galileo Galilei 1564-1642 Italy First to observe Mars through a telescope
Christiaan Huygens 1629-1695 The Netherlands First to observe a feature on Mars, the Syrtis Major
Giovanni Cassini 1625-1712 France First to observe the poles of Mars
William Herschel 1738-1822 United Kingdom First to measure the diameter of Mars
Giovanni Schiaparelli 1835-1910 Italy Described 'canali' (channels) misinterpreted as canals on Mars
Eugene Antoniadi 1870-1944 France Produced the most accurate map of Mars before the space age