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Summer Science Exhibition 2003

Mars, life and Beagle 2









The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG


The OU mass spectrometer team

Professor Colin Pillinger FRS and the Beagle 2 team including Dr Mark Sims and Dr Andrew Coates.
The Open University, University of Leicester, Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory, University College London, and colleagues from numerous institutions.

As Britain's first interplanetary spacecraft heads for Mars, scientists back in the UK are preparing themselves for interpreting the data that will be collected by the host of scientific instruments installed on board. Named in tribute to Charles Darwin's ship HMS Beagle, Beagle 2 has one main mission: to establish whether there is, or ever has been, life on Mars.

The team of scientists involved in building Beagle 2 is led from the Open University, where previous research on martian meteorites suggested that conditions on Mars might be right for supporting life, and findings of small amounts of organics suggested evidence for past life. More recently, NASA's suggestion of fossilised bacteria in a martian meteorite, and signs of frozen water at the planet's North and South poles, have added to the debate. Beagle 2 is part of the European Space Agency's Mars Express Mission, Europe's first exploration of this planet.

Beagle 2 is hitching a lift on the Mars Express probe, which is due to arrive later this year. As the two craft speed towards the Red Planet, the probe will veer into orbit, while Beagle 2 carries on alone into the Mars atmosphere. A heat shield will protect the lander as parachutes attached to the craft slow it down from 14,000mph to 40mph, when gas balloons inflate to cushion the landing.

The lander has a high ratio of scientific equipment to spacecraft mass. Weighing in at 75lbs and with just the diameter of a bicycle wheel, room on board has been at a premium, but Beagle 2 is equipped with everything it needs to collect and analyse the Martian rocks and atmosphere for signs of life, past or present. Upon landing in Isidis Planitia, it will open out to reveal solar panels for power generation, communications antenna and a robotic arm with the Position Adjustable Workbench (PAW) attached. The PAW instruments, including cameras, spectrometers and microscope will characterise the landing site. Collection devices will sample sub-surface soil and rock interiors.

The on-board laboratory will scrutinise solid samples for evidence of water, minerals deposited by water, and the elements of life (carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen), and their isotopic signatures.

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Mars, life and Beagle 2 The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK