Mars spacecraft heading for traffic jam



Scientists could be caught in a "Martian traffic jam" when three different spacecraft reach the Red Planet at the end of this year.

The European Mars Express mission and an American Nasa spacecraft are both due to land probes on the planet at about the same time.

While Nasa deploys a roving vehicle to explore the surface of Mars, the British-led Beagle 2 lander will search for signs of past or present life.

Meanwhile, Japan is using the same June launch window for its Martian orbiter.

Professor Colin Pillinger, the British scientist in charge of Beagle 2, warned of a possible clash between the American and European missions.

He said: "We might be on Mars in a big traffic jam at the end of 2003.

"The problem is that both Mars Express and the Rover intend to use Nasa's Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which is already orbiting the planet, to relay signals back to earth.

"There could be a communications overlap because we're using the same protocols. It would be difficult to communicate with two spacecraft on the surface."

Mars Express mission controllers struck a deal with Nasa to borrow Odyssey for Beagle 2 while the European orbiter was busy delivering data from its own observations.

Beagle 2 is due to land in a region called Isidis Planitia, north of the Martian equator.