Europe denies Russian report that Mars mission has hit big problems
PARIS (AFP) Jun 24, 2003
The European Space Agency (ESA) denied Tuesday a report by its Russian counterpart that its just-launched mission to Mars had been hit by a major communications problem.

The Russian agency, Rosaviakosmos, said Monday that communications were down between the onboard computer of the Mars Express orbiter, en route for the Red Planet, and the Beagle-2, a British-built lander which it carries.

A spokeswoman for ESA's operation centre in Darmstadt, Germany, denied this, saying operations "are proceeding quite normally."

"There was a small difficulty with the orbiter at the end of last week," the spokeswoman, Jocelyne Landeau, said.

"The necessary checks have been made and, in order to give themselves a sufficient safety margin, the engineers have decided to take the precaution of delaying the communications tests between the orbiter and Beagle 2," she said.

"The tests should take place by the end of the week."

She added that there was no reason for any concern and that the mission was "in no way threatened" by the hitch.

Mars Express was launched on June 2, heading a trio of European and US robot missions to the Red Planet that will, if all things go well, be joined by a Japanese probe at the end of the year.

Beagle-2 is a small stationary lander carrying instruments that seek to confirm suspicions, drawn from pictures by orbiting American probes, about the presence of water on Mars.

At present, the lander is attached to the belly of Mars Express. They are scheduled to separate when they get close to their destination in December, and Beagle-2 is likely to land on December 25.

The British scientific magazine New Scientist, in a reported dated last Friday on its website, said the problem was an anomalous message that had been received from an instrument aboard the Mars Express.

The unexpected message was received after engineers in Darmstadt sent activation orders to Mars Express as part of a procedure to establish contact with Beagle-2, it said.

Technicians want to consult with the German manufacturer of the instrument to decipher the message before taking further action, the New Scientist report said.