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December 2003

Chris Gainor

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 the sky.

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.


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Last updated: December 12, 2013

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