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Wednesday, November 4, 1998 Published at 18:44 GMT


Mars goes pop

An artist's impression of Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars

by our science editor David Whitehouse

British astronomers are a step closer to sending a probe to the surface of Mars and are thanking two members of the pop group Blur for their support.

If all goes to plan, Beagle 2 will be launched in 2003 aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express, a spacecraft that will map Mars's landscape, mineral deposits and weather systems.

Beagle 2 is a tiny lander that will be dropped onto the surface of the red planet to attempt to establish whether or not life has ever existed, or continues to exist, on Mars.

The team behind probe faced a 30 October deadline to find £25m for the European Space Agency to accept the lander.

They failed but ESA said they had done enough to be part of the next phase of the mission, provided they raise the remainder of the money in the future.

If they do then they could be part of the spacecraft which will begin construction at the end of next year.

[ image: Alex James and Dave Rowntree of Blur]
Alex James and Dave Rowntree of Blur
Their campaign was helped by two members of the pop group Blur. Drummer Dave Rowntree and bassist Alex James posed with a model of Beagle 2 to help the fund-raising effort.

Project leader Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University in England is now said to be a big Blur fan.

Mole mission

Once it has landed, Beagle 2 will open its petal-like solar panels to power instruments. A robot arm will be able to swing out to nearby rocks and prepare samples.

But the key piece of technology will be a robot mole. It will scurry to nearby rocks and then burrow underground to take samples of Martian soil for analysis.

The soil will be entered into a mass spectrometer, an instrument that uses magnetic and electrical fields to determine the isotopes, molecules and composition of a sample.

These experiments may then point to chemical or organic compounds suggestive of life long since dead - or life still existing.

"What I am convinced about is that the conditions on Mars are appropriate for life," said Prof Pillinger.

"It does not mean that life is there or that it was there."

But he added: "Warm water percolated through the surface of Mars in comparatively recent times. That means that conditions on Mars were very suitable for life to have developed."

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