Boeing launched NASA's Mars Polar Lander (MPL) aboard a Delta II booster from Cape Canaveral on 3 January. Its sister craft, the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO), was launched last month.

The MCO will enter orbit in September, while the MPL is scheduled to touch down close the Martian south pole in December. The MPL carries a small microphone provided by the Planetary Society, which will for the first time transmit sounds from a planet's surface.

The MCO's lunar scoop will deposit samples into an onboard laboratory which will attempt to detect whether there is water in the soil.

Two small microprobes - flying the Deep Space 2 mission in the NASA New Millennium programme - will be deployed from the Mars Polar Lander on its approach to the planet's surface and will penetrate up to 1m into the soil during 800km/h impacts at a distance of around 100km from the MPL.

These will ascertain whether traces of water can be found under the surface.

NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft has made a 24minrocket burn, placing it on course for rendezvous and orbital insertion around the asteroid Eros in February 1999.

The NEAR made 4,100km fly-by of the asteroid on 23 December and multispectral images were taken by the Discovery programme spacecraft and other data were collected.

The NEAR vehicle was scheduled to have entered orbit around Eros this month, but an aborted engine burn on 20 December made the required rendezvous impossible.

Source: Flight International