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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
Boost for life on Mars hunt
Beagle 2,
Beagle 2 will ride aboard Europe's Mars Express
All Rights Reserved Beagle 2

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By Ivan Noble
BBC News Online science staff
Britain's project to land a probe to look for life on Mars next year has received a big boost in the form of a 2.6m grant.

The whole point is how the instrument could be developed further

Prof Colin Pillinger
The money comes from the Wellcome Trust, the medical research charity which has funded a large portion of the Human Genome Project.

The cash will go towards developing a miniature mass spectrometer, one of the instruments the Beagle 2 lander will need to search for signs of past or present life.

The director of the Wellcome Trust says that building the instrument could lead to extremely useful medical spin-offs.

Lab in miniature

"The whole point is how the instrument could be developed further," Professor Colin Pillinger, head of the Planetary and Science Reseach Institute at the UK's Open University, told BBC News Online.

"It will be small, robust, light and automated. It could be sterilised and we may in the end be able to build something that could turn into a personal mass spectrometer," he said.

Mass spectrometers are sensitive instruments used to discover what a sample of material is made of.

The Beagle 2 lander will analyse samples from the Martian surface and radio the results back to Earth.

Medical researchers would have many applications for a miniature mass spectrometer. One is to work out the structure of proteins at work in the body.

Launch date

The instrument which will go to Mars will take up a third of the space in the tiny Beagle 2 lander and will weigh about five kilograms.

A conventional version of the same thing measures two by two by three metres and weighs the best part of a tonne.

A demonstration version is finished and Professor Pillinger said the actual instrument that will fly to Mars would soon be built.

Beagle 2 will ride to Mars as part of the European Mars Express mission, due to lift off from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan on 23 May, 2003.

See also:

30 Jan 02 | Music
Blur tune heads for Mars
20 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Landing site chosen for Mars mission
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