British Mars probe to emulate Darwin's search for new life

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The Independent Online

On a launchpad in the middle of a windswept desert in central Asia stands a mighty Soyuz-Fregat rocket, which - if all goes to plan - will fire its rocket engines this Monday at 6.45pm to send a life-seeking spacecraft to Mars.

With just two days to go before lift-off from Kazakhstan, scientists in Britain are already preparing for the moment in December when a probe similar in size and shape to a garden barbecue will be jettisoned from its mother craft in preparation for a soft landing on the red planet.

Although it will take more than six months for the Mars Express spacecraft to reach its final destination, scientists will use the time to rehearse and re-rehearse the moment when its tiny probe is sitting safely on the Martian surface waiting for its first set of instructions to be beamed from Earth.

The probe - called Beagle-2 after the ship that carried Charles Darwin around the world - contains a miniature suite of laboratories designed to search for the tell-tale signs of life in the thin atmosphere and dusty rocks of Mars.

One false move could wreck a project that has taken more than a decade of planning, which is why an identical probe will be put through its paces at Britain's National Space Centre in Leicester. Every command to Beagle-2 on Mars will be rehearsed with its twin on Earth - and witnessed by anyone visiting the centre - so that nothing is left to chance.

The idea is also to operate a space mission in full view of the visiting public, said Professor Alan Wells, director of space research at the University of Leicester. "Nasa has never done this. We are breaking new ground in the public presentation of space science," he said.

First there is still the tricky business of getting the probe into space from the Baikanur launchpad in Kazakhstan.

As The Independent went to press, the signs were that everything was on schedule, according to Professor Colin Pillinger, of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute at the Open University.

"The Russian authorities have given the go-ahead for the launch. I hope later today to be told that the rocket is upright," he said yesterday.

There is little doubt that Britain would not have had a lander on board the Mars Express spacecraft without the effusive enthusiasm, iron will and low cunning of Professor Pillinger. He once said that the role of a modern scientist such as himself was to be a professor of public relations as well as professor of planetary science.

"Because the UK doesn't give space research such a high priority as other countries, it doesn't have as high a profile," he said. "That's why Beagle-2 has to be different; in the beginning we didn't have any money, so we had to create a publicity machine to convince people that we had a project worth funding."

As well as cajoling senior people within the European Space Agency to include Beagle-2 on board Mars Express, Professor Pillinger recruited the pop icons Blur to write a musical "call sign" for the probe. "Before we'd get a write-up by a science correspondent in a high-brow newspaper, now we get a science story written by a rock correspondent in the New Musical Express," he said. Professor Pillinger was also savvy enough to realise that the media would love the involvement of Damien Hirst, who designed the spot painting that will be used to calibrate Beagle-2's instruments.

Even if the launch on Monday evening is successful, there are many things that can still go wrong between then and Christmas Day - when the lander is scheduled to bounce along the surface of Mars using giant gas bags as cushions.

Over the past 40 years, fewer than 10 of the 30 missions to Mars can be said to have achieved their goals. Many of these failures have been due to seemingly trivial faults that have escalated into a major accident. One of the most crucial points in the journey, for instance, will come when Beagle-2 is released from its mother ship five days before the probe is scheduled to land.

At any point on that hazardous journey to the Martian surface something could go wrong - the explosive bolts may not fire precisely to release the probe's heat shield, or the parachutes may not open as they should to slow its descent. Even if the clam-shaped Beagle-2 lands safely and opens according to plan, there is the problem of dust storms covering the vital solar panels and the need to conserve energy.

"We only have the power of an electric light bulb for an hour to last us all day and that has to keep us warm at night - so this ain't going to go quickly," Professor Pillinger said.

But if the instruments work, and they really do detect the chemical signature of life, it could be the most momentous moment in science - the moment when we realise that life is no longer unique to Earth.