IS THERE life on Mars? In just over two years' time this question will be answered, schoolchildren and members of the Engineering Club heard last week.
Open University professor of planetary science Colin Pillinger told an audience of more than 50 at London's Building Centre of the rapid progress being made on the British-led Beagle 2 unmanned exploration mission to Mars.
The £25M European Space Agency (ESA) project is set for launch in June 2003.
Beagle 2, named after the vessel used by Darwin in his five year voyage of discovery in the 1830s, weighs only 60kg, with the landing system just 30kg.
ESA's Mars Express will transport the craft as far as orbit, before ejecting Beagle 2 'with a spin like a rugby ball to keep it straight through the air, ' said Pillinger.
As it nears the surface - travelling at over 22,500km/h - parachutes will open to slow it to 120km/h.
An airbag system will then envelop the craft to protect on landing, causing it to bounce 300m high before coming to rest.
These bags then roll away and the lander will flip its lid to unravel solar panels which will power the craft's operations and internal heater - vital with temperatures as low as -90degreesC.
A mechanical arm with a series of cameras will rotate to create a 3D virtual image of the local landscape, and an underground borer will collect rock samples.
Results will be beamed back to Earth confirming, Pillinger believes, the existence - either now or in the past - of life on Mars.
INFOPLUS www. beagle2. com