This December 25th, I won't be thinking about silvery globes hanging
from Christmas trees as much as a certain reddish snow-capped globe in
Is this a hangover from all the Mars observing we all did this year? Not
exactly, because Christmas Day will also mark the arrival of two new
spacecraft at the Red Planet.
Mars' close passages to Earth interest more than astronomers. Those who
shoot spacecraft to Mars must line up their launches to take advantage
of Mars coming close to Earth.
By the time you read this column, we will probably know if the Japanese
Nozomi spacecraft, which has a Canadian experiment to measure the
Martian atmosphere on board, has survived a very prolonged and troubled
flight to Mars.
Next up is the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft, which is
due to enter Mars orbit on Christmas Day. The British Beagle 2 probe is
supposed to land on Mars the same day, a few days after being released
by Mars Express.
In January, two American rovers are due to land on Mars. The first,
Spirit, is due to land on January 3, and the second, Opportunity, is
slated to land on January 24.
All these spacecraft will join the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars
Odyssey spacecraft, which are still hard at work photographing and
measuring Mars from their orbital perches.
There's more excitement farther out in the solar system, too. On January
2, the Stardust probe will encounter the comet Wild 2 and collect some
samples of the comet.
Later in the year on July 1, the Cassini spacecraft is scheduled to go
into orbit around Saturn. Its Huygens probe is due to land on Titan
early in 2005.
While clouds and cold weather will turn us into armchair astronomers
over Christmas, the probes arriving at Mars will hopefully give us more
treats from the Red Planet to cap off a memorable year for Mars lovers.