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Blur and Damien Hirst join the team sending a Beagle to Mars.
Boxing Day 2003 4.30-5.00pm

Britain’s first interplanetary probe was due to land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003. This is the story of a man and a dog. The ‘dog’ is Beagle 2, the robot probe designed to land on Mars and, perhaps, like Darwin’s ship The Beagle, discover signs of new life forms. The man is Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University who, with bushy whiskers, chunky jumpers and a West Country accent is its unlikely master.

Colin Pilger with Beagle 2
Colin Pillinger with Beagle 2

For decades, Colin Pillinger has been a good scientist. He has toiled away analysing tiny samples of meteorites, almost atom by atom, to reveal their ages and the history of the stardust from which they formed. He is a wizard with the mass-spectrometer, a clever instrument the size of a small car that can weigh and count atoms of individual rare elements. The ratios of those elements can reveal the radioactive signatures of the exploding stars that produced the dust of which the solar system is formed. They can reveal the origins of microscopic diamonds, formed in bloated red stars. And they can reveal the subtle atomic signatures of rocks from other worlds.

Professor Pillinger’s life began to change when he recognised that he could pick out the signatures of rocks from Mars in meteorites found on Earth. Some of those rocks contained mineral grains that, he was sure, must have formed in liquid water. And where there is liquid water, at least on Earth, there is life. Then, NASA scientists claimed to have found microscopic traces of what may be fossil bacteria in a Mars meteorite. It took the world by storm and made headlines for weeks. Many doubted the fossil evidence, but the evidence for water held up and has since been re-enforced by evidence of ancient water channels on Mars.

But could there still be life there today, perhaps hanging on in pockets underground, around ancient hot springs on this otherwise dry and frozen world? Colin Pillinger realised he could tell quite easily if he could get a mass-spectrometer to Mars. And that would be far more conclusive than the American plan to return samples of Mars rock to Earth as they could easily become contaminated with terrestrial air and bacteria. But surely no one could pack a reliable mass spectrometer into a tiny robot space probe?

Pillinger likes a challenge – though at first he didn’t realise just what he was taking on. The European Space Agency had a small craft, Mars Express, heading for Mars in 2003. If he could design, fund and build a tiny add-on probe in time, it could hitch a ride. First, he had to work up interest and get sponsors, a field in which he revealed new talents. The name Beagle 2 was a good start. The voyage of the first Beagle had stimulated Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. It would need a calibration chart to check out the camera on arrival. Rather than a dull, formal chart, Pillinger commissioned the artist Damien Hirst to paint one. There would need to be a radio call-sign. Rather than a simple ‘bleep’ he persuaded the rock group Blur to compose one. Every stage brought publicity and, eventually, funds were raised and a robot mass spectrometer the size of a shoe box was constructed. Just in time to pack it into its little shell along with parachutes and balloons to cushion its landing on Mars.
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