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British spacecraft nears Mars

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Britain's Beagle 2 spacecraft is on the final leg of its six-month life-seeking journey to Mars.

A rocket thrust manoeuvre put the lander's mother ship, Mars Express, on a course straight for the Red Planet.

Scientists confirmed that the spacecraft was now on target for Mars, 70 million kilometres (about 43.5 million miles) from Earth with another 20 million kilometres (about 12.5 million miles) to go.

John Reddie, ESA Mars Express flight director, said: "As of 1600 yesterday, Mars Express is on collision course for Mars."

On December 19, six days before Mars Express goes into orbit, Beagle 2 will detach itself from the mother ship, spinning like a rugby ball to keep it on a stable straight path.

Both craft will reach Mars about the same time on Christmas Day.

But while Mars Express encircles the planet, Beagle 2 will parachute down to the surface.

The probe will land on a 1,000 kilometre wide (about 620 miles) impact crater called Isidis Planitia just north of the Martian equator, a region where scientists suspect there may be traces of ancient life.

After bouncing down at 36mph on three large inflatable balloons, Beagle 2 will open up like a pocket watch to expose its solar panels and instruments.

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