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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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