[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 November, 2004, 18:00 GMT
Scientists lift veil on Beagle 3
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter

Beagle 2

The team behind the Beagle 2 mission to Mars has unveiled its design for the successor to the British spacecraft.

At a London meeting, Colin Pillinger, lead scientist on the previous venture, outlined plans for putting a new robotic lab on the Red Planet.

Scientists hope to launch two landing craft from an orbiter that could fly in 2009 as part of Europe's Aurora programme of space exploration.

"This is us putting our cap in the ring," Professor Pillinger commented.

The British team's working title for the project is Beagle 2: Evolution, as scientists are keen to keep the original mission's well-known brand.

The European Space Agency (Esa) did not solicit the proposal. Scientists and engineers worked up the plans of their own accord.

[The changes] are driven by all the lessons we learnt - both Esa's lessons and our lessons
Mark Sims, University of Leicester
Professor Pillinger told the BBC News website that he was pushing to make a presentation to Esa as soon as possible. But he added it was not possible to put a cost on the concept at present.

The hope is that it will be considered for a so-called demonstration mission planned as part of Aurora.

This would demonstrate the ability to land on the Red Planet before sending a robotic rover there as part of Esa's ExoMars project (also part of the Aurora programme).

But Professor Pillinger warned a possible 2009 launch was in danger of being missed.

Site selection

Under new proposals, scientists would monitor Mars' atmosphere before attempting to land. This would allow them to dodge dust storms, one of the biggest hazards facing missions to the Red Planet.

Although the craft retains the round "barbecue grill" shape of the original, scientists have made several key changes.

Drop test with deadbeat airbags, Lockheed Martin
The probe may use deadbeat airbags, rather than bouncing ball types
"[The changes] are driven by all the lessons we learnt - both Esa's lessons and our lessons, as well as some new thoughts and some new technologies that are around," Dr Mark Sims, of Leicester University and mission manager on the original Beagle 2 mission, told the BBC.

Advances in solar cell technology mean the craft could cope with half the number of solar panels its predecessor carried: it will open up to reveal two panels rather than the previous four.

These will fold out in a "fanfold" configuration so that the top panel always remains horizontal. The UHF antenna (identical to that on Beagle 2) is positioned on this panel, so the motorised fanfold mechanism ensures it always points upwards for communication.

A powerful X-band communications system for a direct-to-Earth radio link on the protective aeroshell is being considered. This could give ground controllers real-time data on the craft's descent to the surface.

Airbag protection

New lithium-ion technology allows for a battery that can work at lower temperatures, so that the new lander requires less heater power to keep it working.

Stuart Hurst, of contractor EADS Astrium said battery capacity could be boosted by around 60% compared with Beagle 2.

The probe might also make use of "deadbeat" airbags to cushion its landing. These airbags inflate like pillows under the lander before it touches down and would replace the so-called bouncing ball airbags which the original Beagle employed.

You're not going to bounce all the way down a hill and finish up in the biggest hole
Dave Northey, Analyticon
Deadbeat airbags are easier to test and, as Dave Northey of contractor Analyticon explains: "You only land once. You're not going to bounce all the way down a hill and finish up in the biggest hole."

In addition, Astrium has proposed an alternative landing strategy based on technology developed for the US space agency's Viking missions, which landed on Mars in the 1970s.

Each probe (including the lander and its protective aeroshell casing) would have a mass at entry into the Martian atmosphere of about 131kg. The two probes could be launched into space on a Eurostar 2000 satellite, the same box-shaped class of orbiter as Mars Express.

Surface tests

The craft carries a similar science package to Beagle 2. As with the first lander, a robotic arm will open out to conduct surface tests.

Attached to the end of this arm is a Payload Adjustable Workbench (Paw) where most experiments are situated. A gas analysis package (Gap) inside the lander shell will test soil and rock for signs of microbial life.

Scientists have also been looking at so-called "life chips" that can detect amino acids.

In October, the UK government said it would pay the 5m interim subscriptions needed to maintain a premier position in Aurora.

This programme sets out a vision for Europe to visit the planets with robotic probes and perhaps one day even with humans.

The original Beagle 2 was scheduled to put down in the Martian region of Isidis Planitia on 25 December 2003. But despite many attempts to contact the probe, it was never heard from.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific