Sometimes (in fact, we'd be inclined to say most times) spacecraft produces results far superior to those of a manned mission – largely because there are no time constraints, but also because the spacecraft is occupied by scientific instruments rather than life-support systems. Here’s a photo album of the Red Planet, courtesy of the European Space Agency and Mars Express, an orbiter that shows no signs of tiring.
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission is one of the major success stories of international space exploration. Launched nearly eight years ago, the eponymous spacecraft has since been orbiting the Red Planet with exemplary reliability while capturing stunning images of its canyons, plains, impact craters and other features – not to mention huge amounts of useful data.
One of the most important instruments aboard the spacecraft is the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), which produced the images on these pages. Developed by the German Aerospace Centre, it images the entire planet with a resolution of about 10 m, with selected areas imaged at an even more impressive 2 m resolution. One of the camera’s greatest strengths is its unprecedented pointing accuracy, achieved by combining images at the two different resolutions. Another is the 3-D imaging, which reveals the topography of Mars in full colour.
The intrepid spacecraft began its sixmonth journey from the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan on board a Russian Soyuz/Fregat launcher. Having escaped our planet’s pull, it headed for Mars at a velocity of 10 800 km/h relative to Earth. Six days before its arrival on 25 December 2003, Mars Express ejected the Beagle 2 lander.
The plan went as follows: a heat-resistant shield would protect the lander as friction with the upper atmosphere slowed it down from 20 000 km/h. When its speed fell to about 1 600.km/h, a parachute would deploy to slow it further. Finally, large gas-fi lled bags would infl ate to protect the craft as it bounced to a halt on the chosen landing site.
As that point, the gas bags would be jettisoned, the clam-like outer casing would spring open, solar panels would unfurl, a robotic arm would deploy, and the lander’s cameras would start to take in the view. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way: the Beagle 2 lander was declared lost after it failed to make contact with orbiting spacecraft and Earthbased radio telescopes.
However, as these images show, the mission was anything but a disaster – and Mars Express appears nowhere near retirement.
Wallpaper: Download wallpaper images of the Red Planet taken by Mars Express