Pillinger launches plea for Beagle 3

June 18, 2004

Colin Pillinger has vowed to make a second attempt to land a spacecraft on Mars.

The Open University professor is determined to launch Beagle 3 despite the failure of his Beagle 2 to communicate after entering the Red Planet's atmosphere. He has called on the Government and the European Space Agency to fund the mission, which takes it name from HMS Beagle , the ship that took Charles Darwin around the world in the 1830s.

"The decision is in their hands, but we need it as soon as possible," he told The Times Higher . "The longer we have, the more engineering we can do."

Because of the planets' orbits, a mission to Mars can be launched only every 26 months. One is possible in 2007, but Professor Pillinger said 2009 was a more realistic target date.

He hoped that the doubling of science funding expected to be announced soon by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, will include support for Beagle 3 . "He has said he wants to do things that are world-class science and have a financial spin-off," Professor Pillinger said. " Beagle fulfils both of these requirements, and we have shown that we can turn people on to science and engineering."

A MORI poll for Demos earlier this year found that 66 per cent of those surveyed thought Britain should try again with a Beagle 3 .

Mr Brown's interest in such a mission could be heightened by the lucrative commercial potential. Space is big business, turning over an estimated Pounds 346 million on satellite systems and generating £2.5 billion through communication, navigation and observation.

Professor Pillinger received a big boost this week when the OU announced its creation of a Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research. It will unite researchers from the department of earth sciences and the Space Sciences Research Institute, which earned a 5 rating in the last research assessment exercise.

Alan Bassindale, the OU's pro vice-chancellor for staff and research, said Professor Pillinger would be part of the centre, which would bolster the university's position as one of Britain's top institutions for space research.

Although the loss of Beagle 2 was a great disappointment, Professor Bassindale said much could be learnt because its science was "brilliant".

The techniques used to miniaturise its instruments would have applications in medicine, for example.

The OU has advertised in The Times Higher for three chairs for the centre - in planetary and space sciences, astronomy and earth systems science.

The university is also recruiting seven chairs for its Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology: two in the Centre for Computing Research; and a chair in criminology as well as a number of other academic staff.

The OU's move is another overt attempt to boost performance in the next RAE by focusing efforts in fewer but more high-profile areas, Professor Bassindale said.

The Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology brings together staff from the Institute of Educational Technology and the faculty of education and language studies.

The seven new positions reflect education's status as the OU's largest submitter to the RAE in 2001, Professor Bassindale said, and will address its relatively low number of senior academics.



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