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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 January, 2004, 00:54 GMT
Beyond Beagle: Where now for British space?
By Helen Briggs
BBC News Online

Heroic British failure or the forerunner of a new generation of smaller, cheaper spacecraft designed to conquer Mars?

Pillinger, PA
Colin Pillinger: Downcast but looking to the future
As hopes for Beagle 2 fade to a glimmer, Colin Pillinger, who conceived and masterminded the project, has promised to focus his energies on the second voyage of the prototype spacecraft.

"I'm expecting the team to play on to the last whistle but my intention today is to try to continue the Beagle project," he told reporters in London.

"There was absolutely nothing wrong with Beagle 2. We're going for a second voyage in the same way that HMS Beagle (Darwin's ship) actually did its best work on the second voyage."

The beauty of Beagle is that it has shown how you can shrink landing gear and scientific kit into the smallest of capsules for interplanetary space flight.

In this Lilliputian world, you could cram five or more Beagles into the cruiser that took Nasa's Spirit to Mars.

"It is difficult to land on Mars, there's no doubt about it," the professor of interplanetary sciences at the Open University in Milton Keynes said.

"You are facing hazards that you cannot quantify and you cannot pre-judge so you've got to eliminate the risk by making better chances."

'Heroic success'

Professor Pillinger believes such a mission could be put together as soon as 2007, when another window to shoot a probe at Mars beckons.

"We have suddenly demonstrated that people are interested in science and technology and we have to capitalise on that," he said in an impassioned speech after hearing of Beagle's continued silence.

Beagle 2 descent, Esa
Did the probe survive the descent?
"It's no good putting it off and going back into our shell and saying Beagle is a heroic failure and forgetting about it until 2009. I think Beagle has to be a heroic success."

2009 is the date when the European Space Agency has floated plans to send a roving vehicle to Mars to hunt for signs of life.

But the US space agency (Nasa) intends to go there sooner. It is launching a Mars spacecraft designed to orbit but not land on the planet in 2005.

In 2007 its Phoenix probe, which will alight on the water-ice-rich northern polar region on Mars, will take off.

So could the cousin of Beagle, or a pack of the things, persuade Nasa to give it a ride?

Dr Everett Gibson, a member of the Nasa team that claimed to have discovered fossilised microbes in a Martian meteorite, has a foot in both camps as Beagle 2 interdisplinary scientist.

"I would like to have a Beagle with mobility and a Beagle not constrained with its mass," he told BBC News Online.

"Beagle is an outstanding spacecraft with the highest percentage of science instruments that has ever flown. That's a tribute to the team that put it together."

Celebrity support

And it's not just scientists who are rooting for a successor to the plucky spacecraft.

Impression of Beagle, Esa
Beagle 2: A very neat science package packed inside a small space
The Beagle project has attracted the support of celebrities, popstars, and artists.

Dave Rowntree, of the rock band Blur, which composed Beagle's call sign, says Britain must capitalise on the successes achieved rather than moping about the failures.

"The project has shown that Britain can have a viable space science future," he told BBC News Online.

"I shall certainly be working now in whatever way I can to bully people into funding future space research as we had to bully people into funding this one."

Professor Colin Pillinger
"Beagle 2 has done more to inspire science and engineering than anything else"

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