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Monday, 27 May, 2002, 13:58 GMT 14:58 UK
Mars lander team encouraged
View of Mars through the eyes of Beagle 2 (University of Wales)
View of Mars through the eyes of Beagle 2

UK scientists say they could win the race to find proof of life on Mars, following reports that new signs of water have been detected.

A British-led effort will get the first chance next year to dig for evidence.


We're the next probe to land on Mars and we have the only instrument which is capable of looking for evidence of life

Professor Colin Pillinger
The Beagle 2 lander is designed to burrow beneath the rocky surface, to a depth where ice crystals may be present.

Experts will begin testing some of its software next week amid reports that a Nasa spacecraft has spotted vast tracts of ice just below the surface of the Red Planet.

A distinctive chemical signature picked up by a scientific instrument on board Mars Odyssey points to the presence of water, according to reports.

The discovery would be important not just because it could yield traces of past or present extra-terrestrial life; it could also help humans one day explore the planet or even set up home there.

Any astronauts sent to Mars would not be able to take enough water with them to survive the long stay so would have to find a way to mine it.

'Good shout'

British scientists are helping to pioneer the field of robotics that will be critical for charting the terrain of Mars or extracting water.

The first stage is the Beagle 2 project, a British led effort to land on the Red Planet.

The landing craft will hitch a ride on the European Space Agency's Mars Express Mission, to be launched midway through 2003.

Mars Odyssey (Nasa/AP)
Full details of Mars Odyssey's findings will be revealed on Thursday
Professor Colin Pillinger, of the UK's Open University, is spearheading the Beagle 2 project.

He told the BBC: "We're the next probe to land on Mars and we have the only instrument which is capable of looking for evidence of life.

"We'll be able to analyse water, we'll be able to look for minerals that have been deposited from water, we can look for the organic matter which might be the relic of creatures that lived in the water - so we're in with a very good shout of being the people who discover life on Mars."

'Virtual' Mars

Reports that the American Mars Odyssey probe has discovered vast regions of water-ice come as robotics experts at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth begin testing a virtual reality model of Beagle 2.

It will be used from Earth to tell the lander how to move and where to dig once it is on the Martian surface.

"It gives us a virtual Beagle 2 that we can use during the mission for commanding the Beagle 2 arm," Dr Dave Barnes, of the department of Computer Science, told BBC News Online.

"When we get data back from the camera, the terrain information will be put into the virtual software environment which scientists and engineers can subsequently use to actually plan further parts of the mission."


To send humans out into space is very, very expensive

Dr Alex Ellery, Kingston University
Beagle 2 will parachute down on to the surface of Mars near the equator.

The water reserves reportedly detected by Nasa's spacecraft are much further south. But according to Dr Barnes, even if Beagle 2 finds no water on its first visit, there will be another chance, perhaps in 2009, to look.

"Beagle 2 will give the first demonstration of using a "mole" on the surface of Mars," he said.

"If successful, the technology could be used on future missions aiming specifically at those regions found by Odyssey."

'Critical technology'

British space robotics experts are already thinking of proposals for future Mars visits.

The UK Space and Planetary Robotics Network met this month at the Open University in Milton Keynes to discuss the issue.

Dr Alex Ellery, of Kingston University, told BBC News Online: "To send humans out into space is very, very expensive. So, the only way we can actually make discoveries on the planets is to send robots out there."

He hopes that one day robots will become so "intelligent", they will be programmed and sent off to distant planets to bring samples back to Earth.

"I think in 50 years' time, humans will start to make steps towards the exploration of Mars," said Dr Ellery.

"But robots will still be needed because robots can ease the work load that astronauts will experience in actually exploring the surface of Mars. So, they will be a critical technology in making it happen."

BBC News Online will report the full technical details of the Mars Odyssey discovery when they appear in the journal Science on Thursday.

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 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Mars Society president, Robert Zubrin
"If we can colonize Mars, humanity could become a multi planet species"
Beagle 2 project leader Professor Colin Pillinger
"Water-ice is something we've been searching for for decades"

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See also:

27 May 02 | Science/Nature
23 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
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