A tale of two beagles

HMS Beagle and the Mars lander of the same name both searched for life and disappeared. Professor Colin Pillinger tells E&T why the search for one of them isn't yet over.

When it comes to generating public interest, Colin Pillinger has been compared to David Beckham. The leader of the 2003 Beagle 2 project, now professor of planetary sciences at the Open University, laughs: "I don't think that's necessarily true. But I'll accept flattery."

The Beagle 2 lead scientist is certainly very approachable, and says eccentricity is still permissible in this day and age. But let's go back to the early 1990s and the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter mission. Pillinger convinced the ESA that it needed a Mars lander...

"I didn't convince them," Pillinger stops me right there. "I told them they needed one... I don't know if they were ever convinced."

Pillinger then had to convince a lot of other people to pay for it, which he agrees was extremely difficult. "A variety of sources," is all he will say concerning the relative inputs from government and the private sector. I have seen figures ranging from £30m to over £60m, but Pillinger doesn't discuss it. "How much - I ain't gonna tell you."

As to the building of the craft itself: "There was a drawing on a beer mat during an impromptu discussion," confirms Pillinger, an impression of what the craft might look like. It was then built "by a skilled team of engineers - everybody in the British space industry at the time and a whole bunch of universities". The sketch ended up as something the size of a bicycle wheel - Pillinger puts it into visual perspective. It had solar panels, investigative instruments stored inside, and was able to run on minimal battery power.

I wonder how one road-tests something like a spacecraft. Although you cannot simulate a Martian landing, Pillinger gives examples of tests you can do.

"You can work out the engineering parameters associated with the launch - expose the equipment to maximum force. Basically, shake it and see if it falls to pieces," he explains.

Then you see what sort of temperatures it can withstand. Beagle 2 had a protective coating to shield it from the temperatures it would experience entering the atmosphere.

Beagle 2 also met the Planetary Protection criteria, which Pillinger explains as a "keep it clean" process to ensure hostile organisms aren't transported to another planet. Apart from Nasa's Viking probes in 1976, Beagle 2 is the only craft to fully comply with these regulations.

Beagle 2 launch

On 2 June 2003, the Russian Soyuz Fregat rocket was successfully launched from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying the ESA Mars Express and Beagle 2. It reached Mars after seven months, and then, on 19 December, Beagle 2 was "spun off" from the Mars Express Orbiter, which duly went into orbit around the red planet. The professor has a photograph of the Beagle 2 "breaking the umbilical cord", as he puts it, and disappearing off into space. At the time he thought its mission was certain to succeed.

Beagle 2 was supposed to cruise for six days before entering the Martian atmosphere on Christmas morning, 2003. It was then to deploy a parachute and inflatable gas-filled bags to cushion landing impact. Upon landing, it would send a signal to a NASA spacecraft in orbit. Then Beagle 2's position adjustable workbench (PAW) arm would be released out of the lander's body to begin its six-month investigations of the Martian environment. On the end of the PAW was a microscope; a corer-grinder, designed by a dentist, for getting inside rocks and away from Martian dust. "There's no point in analysing them on the outside, they get damaged by weather," explains Pillinger; and the PLUTO 'mole', which in reality looked more like a pencil. It was designed to penetrate the soil and collect sub-surface samples.

Was Beagle 2 searching for changes in the isotope concentrations of carbon, which can be an indicator of life?

"Evidence of life takes a variety of experiments. You need to measure chemistry and mineralogy. [There was] equipment to measure other parameters, temperature, wind, pressure, that sort of thing." He has said of life on other planets, that somewhere else "this accident must have happened". "Yeah, I don't believe life on Earth is unique."

Mars may be the planet most similar to Earth in our solar system, but does it have the ingredients for life? "It had," he stresses. Pillinger is talking mainly about water. Places with "evidence of recent water" are the obvious places to look for Martian life, he says. "[Mars] had a lot of water in the past." Today, water-ice has been observed by NASA's Phoenix lander.

Although Pillinger sounds a note of caution here, he gives the example of ice-speculation at the poles of the Moon: "It was done by remote experiments - orbiters, spectrometers... it can interpret data as ice, but it can't actually prove it." For that, he explains, more experiments need to be carried out. "Everybody and his brother wants to claim they found water on Mars."

Surprisingly, Pillinger then says: "If you really want to see some Martian water I could show you some samples." He talks about drops in a glass tube: "Although this water was extracted from a rock, which
99 per cent believe we've shown comes from Mars," says Pillinger.

"We measured isotopic composition of the water showing it came from the rock, making it Martian water, a better experiment would be a repeat actually on Mars.

"A senior scientist said, if you want to claim something as fantastic as life on Mars, then you need fantastic evidence."

Temperatures on Mars are too extreme for liquid water, so are they too extreme for habitation? Pillinger describes them as being, typically about -20°C in summer and -70-90°C in winter (down to -140°C at night). "It is possible for organisms to have existed in the past when it was warmer and wetter... some organisms could probably survive at the moment - they would probably have to hibernate."

Life... but not as we know it

But we are not necessarily talking about life as we know it. "It's not going to be little green men", says Pillinger, "it is 'life' in inverted commas, possibly nothing similar to life on Earth." The organisms would be adapted for life on Mars.

This leads us neatly onto the subject of Charles Darwin and the HMS Beagle. While the naturalist was sailing around in the South Pacific, he found that life had evolved differently there than in the Northern Hemisphere.

It was Pillinger's wife who had the idea to name the bicycle-wheel Mars lander after Darwin's ship. Then the Pillingers started to wonder what had happened to the original vessel. "No one seemed to know," says the Professor.

Even Darwin thought it had been sold to Japan, according to Pillinger. Then the Professor met Dr Robert Prescott, a marine archaeologist at St Andrew's University who was also looking for it. A Beagle Search Group has now been active for some years.

Pillinger describes the hunt as "a paperchase". But it is one which they have followed. Briefly: after three epic voyages round the Southern Hemisphere, the second with Darwin aboard, the HMS Beagle became a customs' vessel before, in the 1870s, being sold for scrap. "We know who bought it," says Pillinger, and they have located the possible place where it was brought to shore. This is an inlet on the River Roach, Essex Estuary.

I ask if any pencil-shaped 'moles' have been deployed on what they think is the wreckage. Pillinger says that geophysics has been done on it and a stratigraphic survey. "Its sedimentary deposits are of the right era, but we haven't yet hit anything that is a bit of HMS Beagle."

When they are confident it's down there, they need to establish who owns the land it's on (or rather under). Pillinger says this is a murkier process on Earth than it would be on Mars. After this, they need to get the wreck protected. I say that it sounds like a bit of a minefield. Pillinger responds: "There aren't any mines there, fortunately."

Looking for HMS Beagle has been a bit like looking for Beagle 2, the Professor continues. He is still mystified today as to what happened to the space craft. "Even afterwards, we went through all the data and found no reason [for it not to have succeeded]. There is no evidence of where it got to." After an attempt had been made to reboot the spacecraft computer with no response, it was declared lost on 6 February 2004.

Seeking Beagle 2

As an aftermath, he mentions the 2004 Royal Institution press conference, which briefed the media on final attempts to communicate with Beagle 2. Otherwise, Pillinger thinks there are still reasons to keep looking for the lander.

I ask about the ESA's inquiry and the possible reasons given for Beagle 2's disappearance. Pillinger doesn't believe it's worth speculation when there is no proof. However, he agrees there is evidence that the Martian atmosphere could have been hotter or thinner than expected causing problems with the craft's parachute. Obviously, he doesn't believe in the so-called 'Mars curse': only about a third out of more than 40 missions have so far managed to send data from Mars.

Weren't there some photos of an object in a crater, at the time speculated to be the crashed craft, I ask. These were taken in 2005, the pixels then painstakingly studied for "uncommon things". However, when another photo was taken two years later by NASA's Reconnaissance Orbiter, which currently has the best camera, Pillinger says, the crater "didn't have the features that it had before". The last legitimate photo then, the last confirmed sighting that Pillinger has of Beagle 2, is that picture of it being spun off the Mars Express.

Has he missed his moment for the first British-built interplanetary spacecraft, since NASA's Mars Science Lab rover has an advanced spectrometer and it is scheduled to land on Mars in 2011?

"The Science Lab still doesn't have the Beagle 2 instrument that could detect life back to four million years ago. No spacecraft has a purpose-built instrument for that experiment. They have instruments, but not purpose-built."

As for a second attempt, there has been talk of a Beagle 3, or a second Beagle 2. "I don't call it anything," clarifies Pillinger. Which is probably because it has never been built. "We have submitted various applications, one went through NASA's selection process but was thought to be too adventurous," he says.

But, as a chapter heading in Pillinger book 'Space is a Funny Place' puts it: "A Beagle is for life, not just for Christmas."

Yuletide is when the second Beagle should have landed, of course. And they may be out there still.

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