Reaching the red planet

Switch off the Queen's annual message, and listen for news from outer space instead.

Timandra Harkness
Writer

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Topics Science & Tech

On Christmas Eve 1968 three American astronauts became the first people to orbit the moon, paving the way for the moon landings the following year.

Broadcasting live from space on Christmas day, they chose to read from the Bible’s book of Genesis. Perhaps, having travelled further from the rest of humanity than anyone had ever been, they felt that the familiar words of this creation story best expressed their sense of awe, and linked them with their distant kin and kind.

This Christmas Eve, an unmanned landing craft will be making its final approaches to a more distant body. If all goes well, Beagle 2 (named after the ship Beagle on which Darwin made his voyages of scientific discovery) will land on Mars early on Christmas morning (1). At some time on Christmas day, the signal saying it has landed safely should reach Earth, and a complex programme of scientific exploration by its onboard instruments and its robot arm (the PAW) will begin.

Back in 1968, astronauts Lovell, Anders and Borman must have expected that by now human footprints would have been planted on Mars as well as on the moon. Although there are genuine technical hurdles in the way of human travel to Mars, the loss of political backing for human space flight has meant a long delay in the project of reaching out to our neighbouring planets. Before the first shuttle flight in 1981, NASA had sent nobody into space for six years.

There are good reasons for sending robots to Mars before astronauts. The Martian environment is hostile, and the first human explorers will be better prepared and protected if it has been reconnoitred by machines. And if there is life on Mars, most likely in the form of tiny bacteria, it would be a tragedy to never discover them before we land there carrying our own native fauna of bugs and spores.

It is also true that the past 35 years have seen enormous technical advances. The lander Beagle 2 would fit into the boot of a large car, but it carries an astonishing payload of scientific equipment. Scientists and technicians rose to the challenge of squeezing as much as possible into a tiny craft. They were able to miniaturise complex instruments, such as the mass spectrometer, which will search for the carbon signatures of organic life.

Even more impressive, the whole lander project was only proposed in 1997, leaving little time before the launch on 2 June 2003 to plan, design, test and build an entire mission. Without the single-minded hustling of project leader Professor Colin Pillinger, now a familiar media presence with his trademark sideburns and disconcertingly rural dialect, it would probably never have happened. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express would have blasted off aboard its Soyuz rocket without a lander, destined only to orbit Mars and send back the distant view.

It is tempting to see it as a ‘plucky little Brit’ mission. If you go to the National Space centre at Leicester, you’ll be able to watch Beagle’s Mission Control at work through a glass window. But in this case, bigger may not actually be better. Small, for once, really is beautiful, ingenious and extraordinary. The European Space Agency is already planning future missions to Mars that will return samples to Earth for analysis by human scientists, and eventually take real people to the red planet.

Laika the dog went into space before Yuri Gagarin. Let’s hope that this Beagle is also leading the way, and that within our lifetime the human footprint will be seen on Mars. And this Christmas, all ears should be turning skywards to listen for the faint message telling us that the Beagle has landed.

Timandra Harkness is currently writing a feature film with Linda Cotterill, funded by the UK Film Council, about a man going to Mars.

(1) See the Beagle 2 project; the European Space Agency’s Mars Express section; Christmas in the heavens on the NASA website

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