The United Kingdom and the United States are about to land separate missions
on Mars, and a University of Arizona scientist has a role in both.

Mars missions are fraught with risks and challenges. But with luck, both the
European and NASA missions will return data, and Peter H. Smith will soon
compare the results. Smith is a member of the science team for Britain’s
Beagle 2 lander, which is riding aboard Europe’s Mars Express spacecraft.
He’s also on the team for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Smith, a senior research scientist at UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory,
headed the camera team on NASA’s successful Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997.
He also directs the Phoenix mission that is scheduled to land at the
planet’s icy north polar cap in 2008.

This coming Friday, Dec. 19, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express
spacecraft will eject its Beagle 2 lander. The lander will parachute to the
Martian surface on Christmas Eve (Pacific Time) surrounded by three giant
balloons that are designed to cushion its fall.

After Beagle 2 bounces to a halt, it will push the airbags away and hit the
dirt. Then it will open like a giant pocket watch and unfold the solar
panels that power its robotic arm. The Payload Adjustable Workbench, or PAW,
at the end of the robotic arm carries seven instruments that will search for
traces of life.

One of these instruments is a German/UA microscope that will examine rocks
after a grinder removes weathered debris from their surfaces. The
microscope, which has a resolution of 6 microns, can resolve features down
to a few thousandths of a millimeter.

“No one has ever looked at Martian rock and soil under a microscope,” Smith
said. Extreme close-ups will show if dust grains were shaped by wind or
water, and if the rock is sedimentary or volcanic.

German scientists from the Max Planck Institut fur Aeronomie recruited Smith
to supply lenses and illumination systems for the Beagle 2 microscope. In
1997, they worked with Smith on the Mars Pathfinder project, and used the
imager he designed and built. Smith built the Beagle 2 imager’s optics with
funds supplied by the University of Arizona Foundation.

A successful Beagle 2 landing would be a great Christmas present delivered
just before Smith begins an exciting New Year as a mission scientist on the
NASA rover mission.

On Jan. 3 (Pacific Time) NASA will land a first golf-cart-sized rover on
Mars. Then on Jan. 24 (Pacific Time), NASA will land a second, duplicate
rover on the opposite side of the planet.

The rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, will hunt for clues about past
environments that might have supported life. Each vehicle is equipped with a
color stereo camera and a robotic arm that carries a microscope, a grinding
tool with brushes to expose fresh rock surfaces, and devices that will tell
what the rocks are made of.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caifornia Institute of
Technology, Pasadena, manages the rover exploration mission for NASA’s
Office of Space Science, Washington.

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