Brussels, 08 Nov 2004
Colin Pillinger, lead scientist on the ultimately unsuccessful Beagle 2 mission to look for life on the surface of Mars, has told CORDIS News of his desire to make another attempt - this time with two landers.
Looking back to 25 December 2003, the date when the Beagle 2 team lost contact with the lander, Professor Pillinger is able to be philosophical: 'With 100 per cent hindsight we were able to learn a lot [and] we can now say that this wasn't the best way of doing it. If you want to go to [the surface of] Mars, you have to make the lander the priority, but it wasn't; the orbiter was.'
Given the difficulty of landing on Mars (historically, roughly only one in three attempts ends in success), Professor Pillinger argues that sending one mission is simply not enough. That's why he's currently trying to win support for a second European mission to the Red Planet in 2009, using a pair of Beagle 2 type landers, as a demonstration project for the European Space Agency's (ESA) Aurora programme of planetary exploration.
As part of this ambitious programme, ESA intends to send a highly mobile rover to Mars to establish whether life has ever existed there. 'ExoMars', as the rover mission is known, was tentatively scheduled to launch in 2009, but Professor Pillinger believes that the 'drift' of political decision making has made this date unrealistic. In its place, he proposes sending a smaller, more flexible lander programme that will allow Europe 'to get some Mars exploration under its belt'.
'We are setting our stall out. We could send two landers, either both ballisticly, or one via orbit and one ballisticly. We could have a dawn landing [when weather conditions are optimal], so it really would be very flexible,' argues Professor Pillinger. The scientific payload for at least one of the landers has already been defined, as it would be based on the experiments that accompanied the original Beagle 2 mission. 'This is science that still hasn't been done by NASA or ESA - to find evidence for life on Mars,' he said, warning that this would not be the case for long, and that Europe must act quickly if it hopes to make a significant contribution to space exploration.
'The fear is that if we don't start getting Mars experience soon, then Europe will be the poor relation when it comes to international collaboration with the US, for example,' he revealed. However, asked whether the creation of a European space policy is the answer to competing on a more equal footing with countries like America, Professor Pillinger said that his first priority is to ensure the presence of a strong national space strategy. 'Before a European space policy, I would like to see the creation of a UK space agency. Space exploration is going to get cheaper and cheaper, and the UK has the fourth biggest economy in the world. But I have absolutely no problem with collaboration,' he added.
One of the main challenges for policy making in the field of space is that governments often find taking decisions inconvenient, according to Professor Pillinger: 'Decision making has to be quicker [...and] we need long term plans and long term budgets outside of the political agenda.'
When asked how he would defend the comparatively huge amounts spent on space research and exploration compared with other fields of research, Professor Pillinger responded: 'The payback in all of this is that space is phenomenally popular among young people. We are all concerned about the current drift away from science, so if we can use space to get people involved in science and engineering, then the cost will have been worth it.'
He also cited the development of a 'personal' mass spectrometer as part of the original Beagle 2 mission, which received financial support from the Wellcome Trust. 'So many people want [such a device], for medical applications for example, where it could allow breath testing for diseases. This is just one example of how to make space science relevant in other sectors.'
Without doubt, the biggest challenge facing the space ambitions of the EU or its individual Member States, according to Professor Pillinger, is the lack of qualified scientists. 'The problem is, as we haven't got a live programme to work on at the moment, one by one my team are being tempted across the Atlantic. I'm witnessing the brain drain of irreplaceable skills, and it's happening in a matter of hours,' he said.
However, rather than lamenting the situation and dwelling on its causes, Professor Pillinger applies the same principle to the brain drain question that he does to the challenge of landing on Mars - let's get on with it. 'There's absolutely no reason why Europe shouldn't be competing with the US in space. They haven't got a monopoly on good ideas in North America, you know!'
For further information on the Beagle 2 mission, please consult the following web address:
To learn more about ESA's Aurora programme, please visit: