Life, the University, everything

Beagle 2 may have failed to bark - but OU-designed machines are flying all over the solar system
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Beagle 2's mission to Mars was certainly one giant leap for the Open University - but it was only one small step in the OU's extraordinary space programme. Colin Pillinger's £25m lander grabbed the headlines but most people are unaware that the OU is so adept at space technology that sending experiments to far-flung planets has become - well, almost working day.

For the Red Planet is far from the final frontier for the university's Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute (PSSRI). Within the next 10 years PSSRI-designed and built machines will have visited - count them - the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and a host of distant comets.

The department's work is afforded such respect at Nasa and the European Space Agency (ESA) that OU experts are now playing a major role in numerous current international space missions.

Aside from Beagle 2, the most high profile adventure is the ESA's Rosetta mission, which was launched from French Guiana in March on a 10-year voyage to Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Its lander Philae will touch down in November 2014, when OU-designed machines will analyse gas and other properties. PSSRI members have also contributed to Philae's SESAME system (Surface Electrical, Seismic and Acoustic Monitoring Experiments) and the orbiter's GIADA (Grain Impact Analyser and Dust Accumulator) experiment.

"It is a fantastically ambitious project," said OU Professor of Space Sciences John Zarnecki. "I do occasionally wonder that we all do such complicated things," he added wryly. "There must be simpler missions."

PSSRI members are looking forward to July, when ESA/Nasa craft Cassini enters the orbit of Saturn. The craft, launched from Cape Canaveral in 1997, has already investigated Venus and Jupiter. When it releases its probe Huygens towards the planet's moon Titan, it will record properties of the landing site with its OU-designed Surface Science Package. The team has also contributed to a dust analyser and accelerometry subsystem ,which will determine the density of Titan's atmosphere.

OU scientists have myriad links with Nasa. Later this year the Americans' mission Genesis, with PSSRI sample collectors on board, returns to Earth after a three-year journey to gather material in the solar wind. Ulysses, a joint Nasa/ESA mission which has been gathering data on the Sun's magnetic fields for 14 years, is monitored with OU help. And PSSRI has provided sensors for the dust flux monitor on Stardust, whose five-year journey to comet 81P/Wild 2 culminated in January .

The list goes on with the PSSRI monitoring interstellar dust closer to home, as part of work by a Belgian-led satellite. Proba was launched in 2001 and circles the Earth every 97 minutes to monitor space debris. The data is analysed by PSSRI staff, who have also assessed geological samples collected within the Earth's atmosphere as part of the ESA's Stone project.

Then there's the OU's role in Nasa's Galileo, which orbited Jupiter for eight years. PSSRI instruments enabled the craft to make the first in situ detections of interstellar dust entering the solar system - but what made the mission more remarkable was Galileo's durability. The craft was expected to be destroyed by Jupiter's atmosphere in 1998 but withstood radiation so well that it collected data for a further five years before disintegrating in 2003.

But as one voyage ends, others replace it. In 2009, a French-led mission backed by European consortium Netlander will aim to put four landers simultaneously on Mars, with PSSRI providing instruments to measure the Red Planet's thermal properties. Two years later, it will be involved in the ESA/Japan mission BepiColombo,which will back data from Mercury.

And then of course there's Beagle 2. The fact that it has not communicated since its expected Christmas Day landing on Mars now makes it officially "lost", but it will continue to be an ongoing project at ESA and the OU, where scientists need to piece together why it has failed to make contact.

Project leader and OU Professor Colin Pillinger believes it may have crashed, after its carrier Mars Express revealed the density of the atmosphere was lower than expected. "It may be that we never encountered the resistance we expected," he said, "in which case Beagle's parachutes may have opened too late - or not at all."

The professor told a meeting of the Royal Society in London that images of Beagle 2 leaving Mars Express on December 19 may reveal why the craft has not communicated since. One shows what could be a reflection possibly suggesting "something was dislodged".

But he was at pains to suggest both theories were "very, very speculative". He confirmed he was keen to refly Beagle 2 to Mars, but said he would want any future voyages to be dedicated missions rather than those where "Beagle 2 was a hitchhiker".

And he said he was delighted with the publicity for the OU and science, adding: "The number of visitors to our web project on Christmas Day was greater than the audience for Only Fools and Horses."

But he said he wasn't looking to exploit his new-found fame other than to raise awareness of science and support for another Beagle voyage - and suggested the OU would be at the forefront of space exploration for some time yet. "I don't want my own TV show," he said. "I still have some unfinished business on Mars..."

Carly's research is showcased in 'Science'

The buzz of pre-press conference activity at London's Science Media Centre did nothing for Carly Stevens's nerves. Six months ago, she was an Open University doctoral research student sitting in grassland plots, in all weathers, documenting disappearing plants. Her wardrobe then was Wellington boots and an anorak.

Now she is decked out in a smart black trouser suit. In the next hour she will be on quotable terms with BBC and ITV news, most major broadsheet newspapers, Newsweek, Nature and New Scientist magazines and a host of foreign newspapers. Her voice will be heard on radio stations in the UK, across Europe and even in South Africa.

The world has wanted to hear from Carly ever since her UK research into grasslands pollution was published in the internationally renowned Science magazine. This is no run-of-the-mill honour. Publication is the Holy Grail for scientists - some spend a lifetime hoping their research will earn smallest of mentions. Carly is a 25-year-old student.

But it's no wonder the press is taking notice. Carly's research warns that the impact of nitrogen pollution on grasslands is so great that it could wipe out four out of 10 plant species. "The results show a clear relationship between the number of species in a given area of the grassland and the amount of nitrogen pollution," she wrote in Impact of nitrogen deposition on the species richness of grasslands. "At the current legislative limit for nitrogen pollution... we would see a 40 per cent reduction [in plant species]. If this is the case biodiversity is not being protected."

Carly shares the platform with Dr Jeremy Thomas from the Natural Environment Research Council, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Her paper dovetails neatly with his research on UK pollution harming birds and butterflies and Science has published the two together. Carly carefully avoids using the word extinction, but does tell the reporters: "If you keep taking bricks out of the wall, eventually it will fall down."

The publication is also a great coup for the OU's Earth Sciences department. "It's not often that a research student is principal author on a paper published in Science," said the department's head, Dr Phil Potts. "Carly has contributed greatly to the reputation of a top-rated research department at the OU."

But for all the positive reaction, the paper is a small part of Carly's doctoral thesis, which she has yet to complete. She is currently applying for funding to enable her to continue her research.

But for now, Carly is enjoying her success. Carly Stevens comes up in a Google search. Her desk is cluttered with photocopies of articles in German and Spanish. A funny thing happened to Carly Stevens on the way to her PhD. She was published in Science.

By Louis De La Forêt

Find out more about the OU's space missions at pssri.open.ac.uk. See Colin Pillinger's interview at the Royal Society at www.royalsoc.ac.uk/live

Comments