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Spacey Mission to Mars

A pop band, an artist, even a dentist, join an eclectic mix of scientists and businesses for Europe's first venture in planetary exploration.

June 02, 2003|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

On Christmas Day, Europe's first planetary explorer is expected to touch down on Mars, pop open like a clamshell and belt out a catchy little tune by the British pop band Blur.

If the mission goes as planned, the British-made Beagle 2 lander will slowly extend its PAW -- a mechanical arm laden with instruments and sensors -- to begin probing the surface for signs of life as a dot painting by English avant-garde artist Damien Hirst helps calibrate the cameras.

Orbiting above the planet, the spacecraft that ferried Beagle 2 to Mars will be carrying a tiny canister of red paint supplied by fabled Italian sports car maker Ferrari. A "momentous meeting ... between two Red Planets: the planet Mars and Ferrari," the company proclaimed in an announcement of its Mars project.

The race to find life on Mars begins in earnest this month, and leading the pack will be a capsule that is little-known in the U.S. but which has captured the heart and imagination of Europe.

It is being called the "hippest-ever venture to another planet."

The European Space Agency, which is overseeing the project, is scheduled today to launch Mars Express, the spacecraft that will carry the disk-like Beagle 2 lander to the Red Planet. Six months after its liftoff from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Soyuz-Fregat rocket, it will send the Beagle 2 to the planet's surface to sniff, dig and howl a British pop tune, all in the hopes of finding signs of life on Mars -- if there is life on Mars -- before the Americans.

U.S. and European probes are racing to reach Mars because by August the planet will be the closest to Earth in 17 years.

The U.S. has put forth its best scientific minds and multibillion-dollar coffers to field two Mars rovers, which are scheduled to launch Sunday and June 25.

Europe's contender was cobbled together by a hodgepodge of countries, companies and individuals.

TAG McLaren, the famed British maker of Formula One racing cars, built the hardened composite casing for the Beagle. Hot-air balloon enthusiast Per Lindstrand from Oswestry, England, designed the lander's parachute, and London-based Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research group, helped develop the instruments to look for life.

"It's a remarkable lander, not so much for what it is but how it came to be," said Robert Zubrin, president of the Colorado-based International Mars Society, which is dedicated to the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet.

The Beagle 2 faces some tough odds. The journey is arduous and fraught with perils. The United States and Russia have spent billions of dollars since the 1960s with a checkered record of success. Of the dozen missions launched to land on Mars, only three have been successful -- all by the U.S.

Moreover, it marks Europe's first venture in planetary exploration -- one of the most challenging and costly endeavors in science.

But if successful, the payback could be enormous and could help burnish the continent's faded status as a luminary of cutting-edge science.

"If they pull this off, it will be a great source of pride for the Europeans," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Pasadena-based Planetary Society.

The Europeans have taken a decidedly unconventional approach to the mission, building the spacecraft on a shoestring budget as they brought together colorful scientists from all corners of the world and found financial and promotional support from the most unusual places.

"Certainly the budget has been very tight for us, so we've had to use some imagination," said Barrie Kirk, the Beagle 2 project manager also known as Captain Kirk to his colleagues.

Beagle 2 is the brainchild of a scruffy, bespectacled English space chemist with Elvis sideburns and long hair who dreams about finding life on Mars in between feeding cows on his farm outside London.

Colin T. Pillinger, who first worked for NASA examining lunar rocks more than 30 years ago, had been on a Martian quest for years. It was an often-frustrating journey dotted with tantalizing but never conclusive findings, such as the announcement in 1996 that U.S. scientists had discovered possible traces of fossilized bacteria on a Martian meteorite.

When the European Space Agency announced in 1997 that it was sending a spacecraft to orbit Mars, Pillinger asked: Why not go one more step and send a lander to explore the planet's surface? He was confident he could create a lander to "cadge a lift" on the ESA project. Only a lander could truly find evidence of life, he said.

"It doesn't matter whether you find evidence on a meteorite because you can't say for certain it was indigenous to Mars," said Pillinger, who heads the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute at the Open University near London. "You have to take a lander. Without a lander you can't be 100% certain."

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