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Mars is just around the corner

Jonathan Amos | 16:44 UK time, Monday, 12 October 2009

I have to share a picture with you. It features the UK planetary scientist Professor Colin Pillinger.

Colin, you will remember, was behind the gallant effort to put a lander on the surface of the Red Planet late in 2003.

Colin PillingerBeagle 2 was carried to Earth's neighbour by Europe's Mars Express orbiter. It was ejected from the satellite and sent towards the atmosphere, but that was the last we saw of it.

Some believe that Beagle got down but for whatever reason couldn't contact home; others think (and this seems to be the official line) it encountered a thinner atmosphere than expected and simply opened its chute too late. In other words, it went smack into the ground.

For a while, Colin was the most famous scientist in Britain. In the build-up to the landing, his face - and those famous whiskers - were hardly off the TV.

I caught up with Colin the other evening at a new photographic exhibition, Explorers of the Universe, which is being displayed at the Royal Albert Hall.

It features many of the UK's leading astronomers and planetary scientists - all in poses and settings that say something about them and the disciplines they follow.

The pictures are a celebration of the International Year of Astronomy, and are the work of Max Alexander, a professional photographer and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

He's got some smashing images with some great stories behind them, and we'll have a special feature with Max talking about a selection of them in the coming days.

But it was the picture of Colin that caught my eye because it was taken just around the corner from where I used to live.

It's Sandy quarry in Bedfordshire. It's an analogue - as they say - for the Martian surface: the prototypes for Europe's ExoMars rover are tested there (as was Beagle).

It's the perfect location if you have a bit of kit that needs to be able to cope with rocks and dirt with a red tinge.

Yep: Mars is closer than you think.

Max let me in on a secret, though: he had to touch up the picture to paint out the little bits of greenery that had sprouted up between the rocks.

ExoMars prototype

Those familiar with the area will know that the dominating feature on the landscape is the Sandy Heath TV transmitter; if you look very closely at Colin's visor, you can see the mighty mast in reflection.


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  • 1. At 5:48pm on 12 Oct 2009, curiousman wrote:

    The South Australian (SA) desert, just outside Woomera is more representative of the Martian surface than the Bedford quarry, bit further away, but it is a red sand & stony desert area (gibber plains), more like Mars. In the photos Bedford didn't seem to have many stones. In the SA desert you can test for hot and cold and maybe get dust storms too as a bonus.
    Come on Prof Colin have another go at Mars; we Brits need an iconic engineering project to make us proud. We used to have a space research programme. For example we designed a rocket in the 1950s, more than 250 were launched right up to 2000 but not many have heard of Skylark (the Yanks were always better than us at publicity). Contact the University of Adelaide, Prof - I'm sure they'd help you with these environmental tests if you can afford to get the payload there.

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  • 2. At 7:30pm on 12 Oct 2009, adjutant wrote:

    (the Yanks were always better than us at publicity)

    Well if sending men to the moon doesn't catch anybody's attention, then I don't know what does. I don't think it has anything to do with a marketing department, but the project's level of ambition/novelty that may or may not catch media attention. There are also many things NASA has done that people have not heard about.

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  • 3. At 4:51pm on 13 Oct 2009, barry white wrote:

    We need a on the face of pointless exercise to spark peoples imaginations. Without dreams what do we have?

    Mistakes are there to be learned off so next time Prof Colin could get a working item to Mars.

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  • 4. At 5:27pm on 13 Oct 2009, Stephen Ashworth wrote:

    It's worth remembering that Beagle 2 was immensely popular with the British public. It was cheap, innovative and scientifically valuable. It was supported by ESA ("We stand by our fallen comrades", they said after Beagle 2 failed to phone home). It was ready for launch on schedule.

    The project was cynically abandoned before it had returned a single bit of information from Mars.

    Due to lack of government interest, there was no successor Beagle to either capitalise on success or to learn from failure (which in the event was what was needed). European Mars exploration continued on the trajectory of ExoMars, with its ever-increasing costs and ever-lengthening schedule.

    Shame on the British government, the BNSC and Lord Sainsbury!

    13 October 2009

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  • 5. At 11:00pm on 13 Oct 2009, chriswsm wrote:

    I met Prof Colin a few years ago and what can I say. Great bloke, amazing brain and welcome on my pub quiz team anyday. All good scientists have glitches and the whole world learned from the beagle failure. More power to your space suit Professor.

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  • 6. At 09:18am on 14 Oct 2009, Stuart wrote:

    " Mistakes are there to be learned off so next time Prof Colin could get a working item to Mars"
    Yes, but in this country things are done differently.
    We do all the hard work of developing innovative, potentially world-beating new ideas, but if they don't work out first time, we (I mean UK Gov'ts for the last 60 years) drop them like hot bricks and go on to other things - punishing the innocent and promoting the guilty.
    I am thinking of:
    Blue Streak; Black Arrow; Hotol; Beagle 2 as well as TSR2 etc.
    But here is the thing - eventually you run out of 'other' things to do, so you end up just watching other people doing them and applauding them from the side-lines.

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  • 7. At 5:02pm on 21 Oct 2009, firemensaction wrote:

    Of course we should have an input into space research, the spinoff benefits from the space race can be seen all over the world, and they have benefited all, not just the USA.
    We have to face the facts that our ministers and officials are better at writing regulations to stop you doing something than actually making a decision as earth shaking as space exploration.
    After all, was it only GB that pulled money out of CERN??
    With blinkered Col Blimps in charge, with 19th Century ideas and habits, new tecnology to them is something they cannot understand, and without understanding we will allow all our industries, now able to make the equipment needed, to wither and die for the want of a little vision and enterprise. Unfortunately, government have to make these decisions, and thats what they have....little vision...!!!

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  • 8. At 02:27am on 15 Nov 2009, dennisjunior1 wrote:

    Jonathan Amos:

    MARS, is coming around the corner at what cost and, who is going
    to benefit from it?!?

    =Dennis Junior=

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