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How was Beagle born?

The Beagle Missions

Colin Pillinger (Professor of Planetary Sciences) gives expert video advice on: How was Beagle born?; Why did you launch the Beagle mission?; What is Beagle II? and more...

How was Beagle born?

We worked on samples. We moved on to meteorites. We actually built our first space instrument to go to go to a comet. That's flying now. It was launched about the same time as Beagle 2, but it's on a very long flight because it has to fly out to five and a half astronomical units, which is five and a half times the distance we are from the sun. It flies out there, rendezvous with a comet, when the comet is quiescent (that is, it hasn't developed into its coma and its tail and things). It's going to fly back in. We're going to land an instrument on the comet, and it's going to come in with the comet. We'll be taking measurements as the comet starts to make what people know and love as comets: the water and stuff starts to boil off and you get the long tail. So, we're going to follow this process. This will be our first instrument for that. Then, we've been working on Martian meteorites. The European Space Agency decided that they would have a Mars mission, and it was a Mars mission that was only going to be in orbit. I went to them and said, “Look, all this stuff is coming out of Martian meteorites suggesting we might already have found life. You have to go to Mars and land and make experiments.” That's how Beagle was born. They said, “Oh, well, we don't know about that. You haven't got any money, you've not built the spacecraft; you've only built an instrument." I said, “This is just so important, I'll find people who want to do it.” and like the Pied Piper, everywhere I went they said, “Oooo, yeah, we want to do this.” So, all the companies in Britain who worked in space were part of Beagle. They all joined. Some of them joined very quickly, like Astrium (who were then called Matra Marconi Space). They went “Oooo, yeah, this is top hole for our business. We want to do this because this would motivate our staff. Let's get in this.” It just sort of built up; it just grew and grew and grew 'til everybody was in it. All the universities that study planets in Britain had a piece of the action, and we got people in from Germany and the US, as well.

Why did you launch the Beagle mission?

If you're asking people to believe an outstanding claim, like 'we've discovered life somewhere else', then the evidence you present has got to be equally water-tight. It's got to be 110 percent cast-iron proof. You can't do that by studying meteorites that have landed on earth because you're always going to get somebody who says to you, “They have been in the terrestrial environment, which is teeming with life. All you're doing is looking at terrestrial contamination.” Now, we could never prove that we weren't. Circumstantially, we could say that we weren't about the meteorites, but you can't absolutely prove it. So, what we were actually going to do with Beagle was to go back and repeat the experiments that we did on earth in the environment of Mars, where we could say, “Well, we built this spacecraft clean. It's not carrying any terrestrial microbiology, so anything we see on Mars is authentic.” Now, looking for fossils is one of these situations where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are always going to be people, also, that say to you, “That's an artefact,” or “That's a bit a mineral. That's not organic.” What we were going to do on Mars was the experiment that is actually an argument that's been put forward for terrestrial rocks, where people see things and they say, “Ooo! These are microfossils. These are organisms that lived 3.8 billion years ago.” and other people go, “No.” The only piece of information that holds out to 4 billion years ago is measuring the abundance of carbon; its isotopic composition, and comparing it to the isotopic composition of a mineral made in water because that gives you an inorganic measurement. If you do these two things and you see these two things are apart (one of the organic matters has got more Carbon-12 in it than the mineral), then that infers that biology has been involved because on earth all biology is actually marked by having more Carbon-12. The biological processes prefer Carbon-12. All biology does that.

What is Beagle II?

To get it into the atmosphere, Beagle II had to be a probe. To land on the surface, Beagle II had to be a lander. To get it to Mars, Beagle II had to hitch a ride on another vehicle, and to get it on the way to Mars, it had to launch from Earth. It was every step we know about space travel: how to get off Earth, how to get someplace, hopefully, how to successfully land there, and when we got there, how to gather some data and send it back. It was a mission in those terms. The fact that we were part of somebody else's mission as a hitchhiker meant there were two missions; their mission and our mission, although we didn't see it like that, we saw it if as we were all in the same mission. We were part of the mission and they stood to gain information from us which would have helped them with their orbit. I mean, taking a picture from orbit, you've got some ground truth of what you're looking at, and you can say "I now know what we're looking at, and I can translate that into some places I haven't been." It all helps.

What was the public's reaction to Beagle II?

Beagle II is the only science project I have ever heard of that people come up to you in pubs and want to know about. People stop you in the street and on the underground, and taxi drivers know who you are. Beagle II is the only science project that has ever got that. We weren't heard of by everybody, but we had a pretty wide coverage in the UK.

Were you surprised by the way the Beagle II mission caught the public's imagination?

Mars is somewhere people have thought about for 5,000 years. Whether there is life on Mars has probably been thought about for 500 years, at least. Thus, I'm not surprised at all that people are interested in the Beagle II mission.

Do you think there was something very British about the Beagle II mission?

The British do have a sort of a reputation for being somewhat eccentric and doing things that people say they cannot do. So maybe Beagle II is typical of Britain - I don't know. We just did Beagle II because it was there. It was something we wanted to do, so we did it; all of us.

What were the lows of the Beagle II mission?

I don't have lows. If I'd had lows on the Beagle II mission, people would've stopped. I had to be the guy who was always convinced that it was going to happen. I wasn't allowed to have lows. You can say now that, “You haven't failed until you've stopped trying.” If we haven't stopped trying on Beagle II, we haven't failed yet.

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm working with a guy from NASA about the possibility of adapting [unintelligible] technology for look to water on the moon as a resource for people being sent to the moon, as you don't want to have to carry water for a lunar base. So, if we could tap into some lunar water, that would save us a lot of logistics. So we're working on that which might be of benefit to NASA. Mars is still on the agenda because the experiment I was going to do is not being done and nobody's planning to do it, therefore I have to convince somebody. I'll carry on doing that. And we're adapting, or using our skills, to see what we can do in clinical medicine. And the skills are not just restricted to clinical medicine. There are other things that you can use. Small, portable, rugged mass spectrometers. So we're looking at some of those uses.

How did you prevent Beagle II from contaminating Mars?

This was built entirely in what we call an aseptic environment. There are higher levels; there is an internationally agreed set of numbers that you must not exceed. So far there's only been 3 or 4 spacecrafts that ever had to do this. You set the standard, you get below the standard or they don't let you launch. So beagle was well below the standard. But there's a higher tier. As we are learning about Mars more it becomes more dangerous, as you find out that there is liquid water there, and then the probability or the possibility of life being there becomes higher. So you start taking more and more stringent precautions. The next generation of spacecrafts may actually be sterilized. This was built aseptically, but it's not sterilized. If you want to build a spacecraft and sterilize it, then the only way we know that that works is to put it in an oven at around 130 degrees, for something like up to 50 hours. Now the electronics that work in these things don't like that very much. So there are some things that you can't do, so you have to do that to the electronics that will do that, or systems that will do that. And there are benefits on earth – you'll be able to take measurements above boiling water.