Lost in space - found in Essex: The (first) Beagle

It's the consolation prize of the century. He couldn't find Beagle 2, and the nation suffered with him. But he may well have located Beagle 1.

As the director of the failed Mars Lander Beagle 2 project, Professor Colin Pillinger personified one of Britain's biggest-ever scientific disappointments when his space probe reached the red planet on Christmas Day but failed to send back a signal.

Now, another research team he helped set up thinks it has located the remains of HMS Beagle, the Royal Navy survey ship on which Charles Darwin sailed around the world and formulated the theory of evolution - and after which the Mars probe was named.

Tracked down byresearch and pinpointed by radar technology, Darwin's historic vessel - or what is left of it - is thought to be under a mudbank on the Essex marshes near Southend.

Professor Pillinger said cheerfully yesterday that finding Darwin's ship would help make up for losing her interplanetary namesake.

Finding the original Beagle may well have great historical significance. In recent decades Darwin has come to seem the intellectual titan of the 19th century and interest in his life has never been greater. He was the naturalist on HMS Beagle when under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy, she circumnavigated the globe between 1831 and 1836. His observations of wildlife, particularly in the Galapagos islands, sparked his revolutionary idea of natural selection as the means by which species came into being.

To present-day naval historians, Fitzroy is an important figure, both as a hydrographer and as the man who established the Meteorological Office, laying the foundations of the weather-forecasting service.

Students of naval architecture and history know that while the brig-sloop was once legion in the Royal Navy, none survive today, and there is little information to be found about them.

Professor Pillinger has worked with a maritime archaeologist from the University of St Andrews, Dr Robert Prescott, and other researchers, to piece together what happened to the 100-ft long, 235-ton brig after her Royal Navy days.

The Beagle served as a coastguard vessel in Essex to combat smugglers. Because of her size, she was berthed from 1850 in a 16ft-deep dock that was specially cut into the foreshore. By 1870, smuggling was in decline and the Beagle was sold and appears to have had her timber superstructure broken up and removed. The lower part of the ship appears to have stayed in the dockwhich eventually filled up with silt.

It is this that Professor Pillinger and Dr Prescott think they have found, using ground-penetrating radar technology. Their Beagle Ship Research Group is meeting today at the National Maritime Museum to decide on a way forward.

The story of the rediscovery of the original ship will be shown in a BBC documentary, The Hunt for Darwin's Beagle, as part of the Ancestors series on Saturday at 8.10pm.