Beagle 2 paves the way for next Mars mission

Sometime around 6.30 on Thursday morning, as Britain slowly wakes up to the first sounds of Christmas wrapping paper being torn open, a short series of musical notes will come from Mars.

This little nine-note song, written by the pop band Blur, will herald the arrival of a tiny British spacecraft on the surface of the Red Planet.

These notes will be among the first sounds sent home by Beagle 2 - a small "lander" roughly the size of a garden barbecue.

But Blur's signature tune also announces something of even greater significance. If Beagle 2 survives its hazardous landing on Mars, weathering the 1,600C heat that will be generated by its 12,500mph descent through the planet's atmosphere, it will be the start of an even more ambitious programme of Mars exploration - a programme that Britain is likely to lead.

British space engineers and the European Space Agency are already planning the next missions to Mars, under the ESA's Aurora programme. In 2009, the ESA wants to send a mobile exploration vehicle to the Red Planet - a "rover" that is likely to use the technology developed for Beagle 2.

And two years later, British scientists will be involved the most audacious mission of all: an attempt to bring back samples of Martian rock, dust and even water to Earth. Aurora's ultimate goal is to send a human mission to the Moon and then Mars by 2030.

Within days of landing, Beagle 2 will begin its fulfilling its mission - the search for chemical evidence that life exists on Mars.

And if it succeeds, it will be one of the most momentous discoveries of modern science. "It would be Nobel Prize-winning stuff," said one member of the British team.

If Beagle 2 survives its descent, and sends back the detailed data about Martian geology and chemical make-up it is designed for, it will mark a turning point for British science. Britain could suddenly become a senior partner in Europe's race into space.

The future of the Aurora programme will be decided at the next ESA ministerial meeting in late 2004. If Beagle 2 succeeds, it is odds-on that the UK Government will suddenly want a seat higher up the European Space Agency table, and government money will flood into space exploration programmes.