To hell with Christmas (if you’ll pardon the pun), this isn’t so much the festive season as the Martian season.
Next week, the Japanese probe Nozomi will either go into orbit or be flung off into space – or, disastrously, crash into the planet’s surface, contaminating it with microbes from Earth. Nozomi has had a troubled life with fuel problems and damage from a solar flare. It seems unlikely that it will succeed, but if the Japanese do manage to make everything work, I think it will go down in history as a major feat of interplanetary engineering.
Mars Express is already at work, having sent back its first image. Really this is something of a calibration exercise, and the real work won’t begin until it goes into orbit on Christmas Day, just a few hours after Beagle2 has touched down on the surface. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably be all misty eyed if it works, and horribly upset if it doesn’t.
The British media hardly give any time at all to the other two probes that are on their way to Mars, NASA’s twin probes Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit lands on January 4th and Opportunity on January 25th, on opposite sides of the planet. Billed as twin "robot geologists", Spirit and Opportunity will be looking for geological evidence of water, as well as increasing understanding of the planet’s surface – and have a big advantage over Beagle2 in that they are mobile, travelling around 40 yards each day during their 90-day mission.
However you look at it, this is really exciting stuff. I remember everyone at work being crowded around the PC as I downloaded fresh images from Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover in 1997 over a 28.8kbps connection – it was amazing to see almost-live images from Mars, only a few minutes old. And don’t forget that Mars Odyssey has been sending back data for two years up until it was knocked out during October’s massive solar flare, and Mars Global Surveyor has sent some amazing pictures too.
This is an exciting time – I think I’m likely to be attached to my laptop and broadband over Christmas!