The man who saw red

In two weeks’ time, the Beagle 2 lander is due to be launched on a mission to establish whether there is, or ever was, life on Mars.

The UK has never had a space programme. It has a long track record of designing and building systems for others, but so far has never run a mission on its own. In two weeks’ time, however, this could all change when the Beagle 2 lander is due to be launched on a mission to establish whether there is, or ever was, life on Mars.

Beagle 2, named after the vessel on which Charles Darwin made his voyage of discovery, is no grand government initiative, though. While it will hitch a lift on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission and will rely on US probes to relay information back to Earth, the project would never have come to fruition were it not for the determination of Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University.

He devised the mission, raised the funds and will now oversee the operation of the lander from mission control at the OU in Milton Keynes. He took the opportunity to propose the idea of Beagle 2, which will test soil samples from the surface of the Red Planet, when ESA announced the Mars Express mission in 1997.

Mars Express is an orbiter that will photograph and map the planet’s surface, monitor atmospheric circulations and examine geological substructures, among other things. It is scheduled for launch by a Russian Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 2 June, and Beagle 2 will be bolted to it. Its estimated time of arrival is Christmas morning.

The importance of the launch succeeding this year can’t be emphasised enough – it is literally the most favourable time in many millennia. ‘2003 is the best time for going to Mars because it is nearer to Earth than at any time in the past 70,000 years,’ said Pillinger.

And he’s not the only one to capitalise on this opportunity. There are two US landers en route at the same time as Beagle and a Japanese orbiter is already on its way. Come 2004 there will be four orbiters and three landers on and around Mars – ‘a veritable traffic jam’, according to Pillinger.

Not that that’s a bad thing. With some European/US co-operation Beagle and the US spacecraft will be working together to get data back to Earth using the same communication protocols. Pillinger explained that because the Mars Express orbiter makes complex Martian orbit entry manoeuvres it will need to use the US Mars Odyssey orbiter to send back data for the first 10 days.

Despite the NASA collaboration, it’s still a high-risk/high-reward endeavour – Pillinger admits the mission is more likely than not to fail. It is a collaboration between many different organisations and individuals, some of whom have given their time for free. It has not benefited from the sort of funding that NASA is capable of. Therefore the lander has been engineered to work, but for the best price possible.

‘Virtually everything in this lander is a single point failure, there is almost zero redundancy. We have done our very best to test everything to the point where it will work, but if you can’t open the lid to the lander you can’t do anything,’ said Pillinger.

The failure of one component, one bolt, one hinge could turn a piece of technology worth at least £25m into a piece of junk. But its backers believe in it. It has the potential to make history. What drives Pillinger to take this gamble is the knowledge that he could prove what NASA’s best scientists can only controversially assert. In 1996 NASA claimed to have found evidence of fossilised Martian life in a meteorite that landed in the Antarctic. But for Pillinger and a large section of the scientific community these claims can only be verified when similar fossils are found on the red planet itself.

‘It is a very controversial subject. It is not a question of whether they may have mistaken the fossil. The problem is that no one can prove that it’s a Martian fossil. It might be something that got itself into the meteorite on Earth and that’s why this is a study that is done in an environment dominated by biology.’

For Pillinger, Beagle 2 is not only about confirming that the alleged Martian fossils are indeed Martian. It is hoped the probe will also discover, if they exist, the descendants of those fossilised creatures in soil. ‘We will be going to Mars to repeat all the experiments we’ve done down the years on Martian meteorites to show unambiguously that we’re talking about life that is Martian.’

Finding those fossil-containing rocks on the surface of Mars requires a selection process that balances differing needs and challenges. Pillinger is irked that people assume that the recent discovery of Martian sub-surface water is the deciding factor in where his team lands the probe. ‘Everybody believes that just because Odyssey has suddenly said ‘Oh, there’s water some place’ we would rush off and go to a new site. To choose a site is a complicated business. We very carefully chose the Isidis Basin on the basis that for an engineer it doesn’t pose enormous risks, and for the scientist it gives the opportunity that we want to do science.’

Engineers need a place that does not have a huge number of rocks, steep slopes, deep valleys and sand dunes, and is at a latitude not too high for ‘a good sun angle’ for the solar cells. It has to be in the northern hemisphere so the season is spring to summer (when environmental conditions are more favourable), not autumn to winter, when it lands. The scientists certainly share this one criteria. They also want enough interesting rocks to study and a sedimentary basin where there is potentially water.

For Pillinger’s team all these things came together in the Isidis Basin.

His emphasis on the need for a wide range of professional skills is one example of Pillinger’s determination to show that Beagle is not just his project: ‘It is a colossal team of people’ he said, ‘without whose skills it wouldn’t come together.’

Beagle involves engineers from all manner of backgrounds, as well asphysicists, astronomers, IT experts and biologists. This mix of technologists freely pitching in is also reflected in the very nature of the lander. It is not actually owned by anyone – not even the OU or the main corporate partner, Stevenage-based space firm Astrium.’Nobody technically owns Beagle. This is a big consortium of people and the money has come from a wide variety of sources,’ said Pillinger.

The charitable aspect of the project is particularly important to the professor. For him the subject of money is almost as contentious as the issue of Martian fossils. ‘I don’t discuss things about money. What I will tell you is when we started we didn’t have any and a lot of people worked on this for nothing using their own resources.’Despite this colossal effort by so many it’s a project that the space agencies don’t want to replicate – a one-off for the UK. Pillinger is under no illusion about that.

‘The European Space Agency said it never ever wants this to be repeated. This is something that makes life very difficult to control for it. I think that it’s a fabulousdemonstration of people’s ability to co-operate. But it’s very likely to be a one-off.’

For the record

Colin Pillinger graduated with a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wales in 1968. After that he held senior research positions at the universities of Bristol and Cambridge before joining the Open University in 1984, where he was made professor of planetary sciences in 1991.

He began his career in lunar sample analysis for the NASA Apollo Programme, and at the OU he has been working on Martian meteorites. His involvement with space missions includes membership of expert committees advising the European Space Agency on its future exploration programme. He is also involved in NASA’s Genesis mission, which will collect a sample of solar wind (energetic particles emitted by the sun).

He is a fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Meteoritical Society and the Royal Geographical Society, and a member of the British Mass Spectrometry Society.

His publications include more than 500 scientific papers, abstracts and communications concerning public awareness of science, and he is a regular contributor to TV and radio.