Open Eye: Is there money for a mission to Mars?

When Charles Darwin asked his father's permission to go to South America on HMS Beagle, he was given eight reasons why it was not a good idea, including: "it's a wild scheme - no good would come of it!" As Darwin Snr controlled the purse strings of his 22-year-old son, he had to be persuaded to relent by Charles's Uncle Josiah Wedgwood. The outcome of his son's revolutionary trip, as we now know, was his epic work, the Origin of Species.

Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University and Gresham College, who is championing the cause of Beagle 2, the effort to land a spacecraft on Mars to look for signs of life, is all to aware of the parallels. The European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express Mission, which could carry Beagle 2, has been inserted into the programme at such short notice that the British Space Agency, PPARC, has no money set aside for it. So Pillinger is prepared to look for a rich uncle in the form of private money to support his project.

The Beagle 2 scheme recently had another set-back when ESA substantially decreased the money for the mission to accommodate other things. When Darwin, a very tall man, reported for duty, his bunk was too short. So what did he do? He made holes for his legs in the cabin wall! The Padre was also thrown off the ship to accomodate him!

There's no such solution for Pillinger, but he and his colleagues, nevertheless, have come up with a stronger, lighter package with only the key experiments on board. Likewise, the original Beagle had to refit with mahogany timbers to strengthen it for the Southern Oceans. The similarities do not stop there. The Beagle's destination was Tierra del Fuego, described as "desolate, depressing, sterile and repulsive", so not unlike Mars.

But if the planet is considered sterile - the Viking missions could not detect life in the 1970s - why does Pillinger want to go? Well, the new evidence fromMartian meteorites is that warm water percolated through the rocks on Mars relatively recently, may be only 600,000 years ago. Pillinger and his colleagues have a new and more universal way of looking for signs of past life and by analysing the atmosphere for trace constituents, particularly methane, they might be able to detect life currently going on anywhere onMars, even buried deep down.

When they reduced the mass for the project, ESA did so to make room for a data relay which would allow them to participate in the 2005 NASA mission to bring back samples. Pillinger thinks it is imperative that we know more about the conditions on Mars first, otherwise there is an enormous risk of the material being contaminated when it comes back to Earth, thus confusing the data. Anyway, he anticipates "the first analyses will be carried out in quarantine with only a very limited number of investigations involved". If the risks of contamination back on Earth had already been assessed, perhaps the samples would be released into the wider scientific community earlier, with enormous benefits for understanding Mars.

So challenged by a seemingly impossible reduction of a factor of two, the Beagle 2 team have had an inspirational breakthrough. The mole to drill into the Martian surface has been found to have inherent mobility. It can crawl across the surface and head off left or right as commanded. When it reaches a large boulder, it can dive beneath the surface like a gopher. Evolution at its very best! Without needing a wheeled or tracked vehicle, Beagle 2 can be shrunk inside ESA's target of 60kgs.

In later years Darwin said of the voyage of the Beagle "it was the most important event in my life", a sentiment with which Pillinger easily sympathises.