Beagle 2 lander separates from orbiter module

The European Space Operations Centre has confirmed that the Beagle 2 lander successfully separated from the orbiter at around 11.15GMT on Friday December 19.

The ESA announced that the Mars Express spacecraft had "flawlessly released" the Beagle 2 lander that it has been carrying since its launch on June 2 this year.

The lander is now on its journey towards the surface of Mars, where it is expected to land early in the morning of December 25.

A spokesperson for the ESA said: "Mars Express, Europe's first mission to Mars, has passed another challenging milestone on its way towards its final destination."

The operation to separate the Beagle 2 lander from Mars Express entered its crucial phase at around 9:31CET. Data from Mars Express confirmed that the pyrotechnic device used to separate the lander from the orbiter was fired to release a loaded spring, which gently pushed Beagle 2 away from the mother spacecraft.

Since the Beagle 2 lander has no propulsion system of its own, it had to be put on the correct course for its descent before it was released. On Tuesday December 16, the trajectory of the whole Mars Express spacecraft was adjusted to ensure that Beagle 2 would enter the atmosphere of Mars at the correct angle.

This 'retargeting' manoeuvre was critical: if the entry angle is too steep, the lander could overheat and burn up in the atmosphere; if the angle is too shallow, the lander might skip off target.

The targeting and subsequent release were crucial manoeuvres for which ESA's Ground Control Team at ESOC (European Space Operations Centre) had trained over several months.

David Southwood, ESA Director of Science, said: "Good teamwork by everybody - ESA, industry and the Beagle 2 team - has got one more critical step accomplished. Mars, here comes Europe!"

Taking advantage of the particularly favourable planetary alignment, NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japanese space agencies planned four missions to the Red Planet.

The next major milestone for the Mars Express mission will be the manoeuvre to enter into orbit around Mars at 2:52CET on Christmas morning, when Beagle 2 is expected to land on the surface of Mars.


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