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Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC

Printed with previous permission of the Houston Chronicle

'Curse of Mars' casts shadow over new space mission
Reuters News Service 

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan - A new Mars mission, touted as the most thorough
investigation yet of the Red Planet, is due to blast off on Monday,
battling against the bad luck that has dogged past missions to Earth's

The $300 million euro Mars Express, the first fully European mission
sent to any planet, will try to find out if there is, or ever was, life
on Mars. 

But the European Space Agency's (ESA) mission at Russia's Baikonur
cosmodrome, on the arid steppes of the central Asian republic of
Kazakhstan, can hardly forget that 20 of the 30 missions to Mars have
been less than successful. 

"Mars is bad luck for space and a real difficulty for us," ESA's science
director David Southwood told Reuters. "If we were sailors, I think we
would be very superstitious about going to Mars." 

The Mars Express will carry Beagle 2, a space probe that looks like a
collection of dustbin lids but which packs a broad array of complex
scientific equipment that will burrow into Mars's surface, analysing
rock, and hunting for water. 

"Maybe there was life on Mars once in the past? We are going to seek
evidence of past life...or indeed, even micro-organisms that are alive
now," Southwood said. 

After a six-month journey to Mars, the British-built Beagle 2, named
after the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his voyage to the
Galapagos islands, will parachute down from the orbiting Express. 

Its fall will be broken by air balloons designed to let it bounce
harmlessly to a halt. When it has landed, it will signal the happy news
with a brief tune by British pop band Blur. 

If all goes well, the Beagle should be able to relay information back to
Earth through the orbiter for six months. 


"In the worldwide effort to explore the Red Planet in recent years, the
European Mars Express mission represents the most throrough
investigation of Mars attempted so far," ESA said on its Web site. 

Science fiction fans can take heart that one of the main aims of the
mission will be to assess the chances of humans living on the planet. 

"For me as a scientist, it's important that this is the first step to
looking at the possible habitability of Mars," Southwood said, adding
that the first manned mission to Mars could be sent in the next 20 or 25

The Mars Express will blast off atop a Russian Soyuz launcher around
1745 GMT on Monday. It is one of three missions taking off this month to
exploit a period when Earth and Mars are closest together. 

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