Probe will be launched on June 2 
from Kazakhstan

The European Space Agency (ESA) probe will be blasted into space onboard the unmanned Mars Express spacecraft on 2 June from Baikonur in Kazakhstan by a Soyuz-Fregat rocket. 
   
The spacecraft will embark on a 400 million-km journey through space and is scheduled to release Beagle 2, named after evolutionist Charles Darwin's exploration ship, onto the surface of Mars on 25 December this year.

Race to Mars

The technological race will be closely run, with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) planning to launch on June 8 the first of two Mars Exploration Rover robots to undertake geological research on the red planet.

The second launch is scheduled for 25 June, and the first robot is scheduled to reach Mars on 4 January next year.

Mars to have more visitors
than usual

ESA’s mission is the first of its kind, a historic solo mission to another planet, said British researcher Dr Dave Barnes, a senior lecturer at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Wales. 
  
Probe's mission

The 30-kg clam-shaped probe, equipped with high-tech robotic arms, will investigate geological features and the atmosphere for the presence of water, crucial evidence of life on the Red Planet. 

"This mission will certainly probe levels of our robotic technology," Barnes, a senior computer engineer for the project, told reporters in Tokyo after outlining the mission.

Barnes represented the members of the European Beagle 2 project at the 7th International Symposium on Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation in Space, which took place in Japan's capital last week. 
 
Barnes, in charge of developing the control system for the probe's robotic arms, said the mission would provide European countries with the opportunity to assess whether their robotic technology is capable of competing with that of the Japanese and Americans.
  
"In certain areas we have a lot of catching up to do, and other areas we are holding our own," the British computer engineer said. "Areas such as small software, I think, that's our strength.”
  
The Beagle 2, reportedly developed on a shoestring budget in space exploration terms costs $57.3 million, will release a crawling mole to gather subsurface soil samples and return them to its on-board analytical laboratory.
  
The probe, which is powered by solar batteries, will send back the results of the analysis as well as photographs of the surface taken with panoramic cameras. 
  
Closer than usual

Mars, the most familiar planet to mankind and touted as a sister planet of Earth, will make its closest approach to our planet in 60,000 years this summer.
 
On 29 August this year, the distance between the two planets shrinks to about 55.76 million km, about a third of the distance between the sun and Earth. Mars' brightness at its closest proximity to Earth will have a magnitude of 2.9. Given that the polar star has a magnitude of 2.0, Mars then will outshine any other star in the night sky.

According to the National Astronomical Observatory, Mars has not made such a close approach to Earth since 57,537 BC. The next time Mars will come so close to Earth will be in 2287.