Hirst reaches for outer limits

June 25, 1999

Colin Pillinger tells Alison Goddard how he hopes to raise £25m to buy the spacecraft Beagle 2 a ticket to find life on Mars

 

Last month, Colin Pillinger unveiled the latest weapon in his quest to land a spacecraft on Mars - Damien Hirst, the artist perhaps best known for splicing a sheep, pickling it and presenting it in a glass tank.

Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University, approached the artist to create a spot painting that could be used as a test image for cameras on board Beagle 2, the disc-shaped spacecraft he hopes to land on Earth's nearest planetary neighbour in January 2004.

Hirst was more than happy to oblige. "At art school we were encouraged to break boundaries and very quickly we looked beyond the studio as a place for artistic creativity," he says. "Not in my wildest dreams would I have thought about making an artwork that would travel to the red planet."

It was the latest wacky idea in Pillinger's scheme to raise the profile of Beagle 2 and hence the money to send the spacecraft to Mars. Days later, the European Space Agency announced that the space mission Mars Express, which would carry Beagle 2, had won unanimous approval and will be the first European mission to Mars. But Pillinger still needs to raise £25 million to buy Beagle 2's ticket on Mars Express.

"The lander is called Beagle 2 after the ship in which Charles Darwin sailed round the world in search of evidence supporting his theory of evolution," says an ESA spokesperson. "But just as Darwin had to raise the money for his trip, so the search is on for public and private finance for Beagle 2."

Pillinger is optimistic about raising funds for the spacecraft, a collaboration between the Open University, Leicester University, University College London, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and commercial partners including Matra Marconi Space.

One of the weapons in his armoury is a tape of the BBC radio programme Today. "On Today on May 11 the science minister, Lord Sainsbury, said: 'We are now very supportive of Mars Express and Beagle 2,'" explains Pillinger. "When asked whether that meant the government would come up with some money, Sainsbury replied: 'Professor Pillinger is fundraising and the government will play its part as well.' " Pillinger comments drily: "We are waiting to see what 'very supportive' and 'play its part' mean."

Pillinger thinks our curiosity about Mars will help. "I was brought up on H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds and a cult radio programme called Journey into Space," he says. "The idea in both was that if there were going to be aliens, they would come from Mars. The question of whether we are alone in the universe is one everyone has asked."

The American space agency Nasa's Viking mission to Mars in 1976 showed no definite evidence of past or present Martian life. So there was great excitement when in 1996 Nasa scientists announced that a meteorite found in the Antarctic contained evidence of life on the red planet.

The finding remains controversial, but Pillinger is convinced: "Martian meteorites clearly contain indigenous water. We have also found organic matter (containing compounds of carbon, the building block for life on Earth) in Martian meteorites that landed in the Antarctic. The idea that these meteorites have been contaminated (since they landed on Earth) just doesn't hold together."

Months after head of Nasa Dan Goldin announced the possible traces of life in the Martian meteorite, the space agency raised enough money to send a second mission to Mars. Mars Pathfinder landed on July 4, 1997. It spent three months exploring the planet's surface, finding evidence that water once flowed there. A series of missions is now planned or in progress - one spacecraft is on its way to Mars and is due to land on a polar cap in December.

The mission carrying Beagle 2 will be Europe's first and will be the first to look for life below the planet's surface. "Nasa's approach is to 'go and bring back samples'," says Pillinger. "By contrast, European scientists are providing instruments that will make measurements on Mars itself."

The European approach has its advantages, Pillinger believes. "First, we don't have to face the dreadful problem that the Americans will: they will have to quarantine their samples. Second, sample return missions have moved away from using parachutes and air bags to land collection instruments on Mars: instead they use rockets to send the instruments from the shuttle to the planet's surface. But there is a risk rocket fuel could contaminate the landing site."

Beagle 2 will parachute from Mars Express to the surface of the planet, using air bags to cushion its landing. It will then analyse the surrounding rocks, soil and atmosphere for evidence of life.

"It will land on the northern hemisphere of Mars in Martian spring. We would like to analyse the Martian atmosphere as it changes over the seasons, leaving the harsh winter until last," explains Pillinger.

When the batteries run low, however, the mission will end and Beagle 2 will be abandoned on Mars. "We are not planning to bring Beagle 2 back to Earth," says Pillinger. "That said, some entrepreneur could go and get the Damien Hirst original back from Mars and flog it for a fortune."

It is the sort of creative thinking that has stood Pillinger's fundraising in good stead. "By November 10, I need to have a credible finance plan," he says. "When I am being very imaginative I try not to tell people what I am doing. Do I have something up my sleeve? You will have to wait and see."

THE BEAGLE HAS LANDED...

Beagle 2 will be the first spacecraft to search for signs of Martian life below the planet's rocky surface. Scientists believe it will be the only chance of finding living organisms on Mars.

It will travel to the red planet on the European spacecraft Mars Express, due to launch in June 2003. While the spacecraft orbits Mars, Beagle 2 will drop onto Mars's surface. Weighing just 60 kilograms, it will plunge through the Martian atmosphere, protected by a heat shield. A biological shield will protect Mars from accidental contamination from Earth.

After landing, Beagle 2 will calibrate its cameras and other instruments, using the painting created by Damien Hirst, before carrying out experiments for evidence of past life on Mars.

Panoramic cameras will capture images of the landing site, which will be used to guide the space lander towards interesting features. A robotic arm will grab rocks for analysis by microscope and a mole will crawl across the surface of Mars, looking for organic matter.

Here be...aliens

"I think everyone expected to see a man emerge - possibly something a little unlike us terrestrial men, but in all essentials a man. I know I did. But, looking, I presently saw something stirring within the shadow: greyish billowy movements, one above another, and then two luminous discs - like eyes. Then something resembling a little grey snake, about the thickness of a walking stick, coiled up out of the writhing middle, and wriggled in the air towards me."

Such was H. G. Wells's account of Martians in his 1898 classic The War of the Worlds.

Mars was first studied in detail by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877, who thought he saw regular channels on the planet's surface. Soon the idea took hold that Martians had dug irrigation canals. These channels were an optical illusion, but valleys on Mars were made by surface water 600,000 to 1.3 billion years ago - an indication that primitive life may have existed. Water no longer flows on Mars, so researchers must look below the surface for clues, where they would be protected from harsh conditions.

 

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