If you felt a strange disturbance in the space enthusiast community Force a couple of days ago… as if millions of voices cried out in anguish all at once… it was because of a Big Announcement that lit up Twitter and Facebook like a picture of a cute kitten sleeping in a hammock – the British Beagle 2 spaceprobe, lost for the past 13 years after failing to “phone home” after attempting to land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003, had been found on photos taken by the HiRISE camera onboard NASA’s MRO orbiter.
Why was this such huge news? Because the – apparent – loss of Beagle 2 has been an open wound for British and many other space enthusiasts for over a decade now. Built on a shoestring budget and masterminded by the charismatic and brilliant scientist Professor Colin Pillinger, Beagle 2 defied all the odds and hitched a ride to Mars onboard the ESA probe Mars Express. It was sent to Mars to look for life, using an ingenious Swiss Army Knife like suite of scientific instruments, and when it detached from the Mars Express probe and started its long fall to Mars, millions of people held their breath and waited to hear it had landed safely. But we heard nothing. All day on that memorable, frustrating, sickening, disappointing Christmas Day we turned on every TV and radio bulletin (this was pre-24 hour rolling news, remember) in the hope that a signal had been heard from Beagle, but nothing… nothing… nothing…
I have very vivid personal memories of that time. As a Mars mad British space enthusiast Beagle 2 was a mission that meant a lot to me. I was desperate for it to succeed. I had some problems with it, I’ll be honest. I *hated* the fact that it carried a “Spot painting” by artist Damien Hirst, to be used as a photographic calibration guide; the scientific, sensible part of me knew that was a good idea, that it made sense… dots… colours… but the grouchy, artistic side of me was royally hacked off that Beagle was carrying something by someone I thought of (and still think of, to be honest) as typical of the overpaid, overhyped, publicity-worshipping Emperor’s New Clothes “modern artists”, who, encouraged by smart arse critics, create utter rubbish in the name of art and then fool everyone into thinking it’s really clever. It just seemed wrong to me that a space probe landing on Mars, built by the land which gave the world Turner, Constable and others, would be carrying to the New World a painting of spots made by a guy who cut sheep in half, you know? And as for that plinky plonky Blur tune as the call sign… well, I wasn’t a huge fan of Damon Albarn either, and I had harboured (totally unrealistic!) fantasies of the theme music from “The Sky At Night” being broadcast from Mars, so Blur’s tune didn’t do a thing for me.
Oh, but the science! The idea that OUR probe, “plucky little Beagle 2” – an elegant, pocket watch of a spacecraft, which had been designed by someone the press saw as a fabulously eccentric British boffin scientist, complete with mutton chops and yokel accent, and had been taken to Mars grudgingly at best by ESA – might be the one to discover life on Mars was intoxicating, dizzying! I spoke on the radio about it many times in the build-up to the landing, and by Christmas Day was so fired up about it I could hardly think about anything else.
And then the great deflation… press briefing after press briefing with no signal to report. It was gutting. I remember sitting on my mum’s stairs, like Kermit, with my laptop on my knee, waiting to see someone break the brilliant news that Beagle had phoned home… but that news never came, and we all went to bed on Christmas Day deflated and disappointed, but still hopeful that Beagle would bark the next day, or the next… or the next..?
But Beagle didn’t bark on Boxing Day, or on any other day after, and eventually the team had to accept that their spacecraft had been lost. It must have been as if someone had pulled the ground out from under them.
And yet, through it all, Professor Pillinger, sitting in on every press briefing, always ready to answer questions, remained optimistic, and encouraging, and noble. Even when the press and the Government – which had been preparing to steal some of the glory for the Beagle mission had it succeeded – started turning against him, criticising the waste of money, etc, he remained above it all, tall, composed and honourable, even though he must have been screaming and punching at walls inside.
Over the years the fate of Beagle 2 has been the cause for much speculation. Did its parachutes fail? Did it crash into the surface? Did it fall over a cliff? Did it land safely only for its radio to fail? What happened to it? Over time, somehow, a consensus began to emerge that the probe had either burned up in the atmosphere or smashed into the ground, and people began to hunt for its wreckage on photos of the surface.
And then, last week, word came out that Beagle had possibly been found – not in twinkly pieces scattered across Mars, but intact…
And it was true. At a big press conference on Friday the HiRISE pictures were shown to the world, and yep, there was Beagle 2, sitting on the surface, its parachute and backshell nearby too. There had been no case-shattering impact on Mars. Beagle had made it through the atmosphere as planned… its backshell had fallen away as planned… the parachute had detached as planned… and it had landed on the surface. But then, apparently, it hadn’t followed the plan. Some of its “petals” didn’t open, only a couple of them did, which meant it didn’t have the power to phone Earth and begin its scientific mission.
Beagle landed on Mars only for the last stage of its arrival to go wrong. Having done all the really hard stuff, having survived its fiery plunge through the thin martian air and its shuddering bouncing onto and across the surface, it just didn’t open up properly.
Which means that a healthy, beautiful, shining, gold and silver space-probe was sitting on Mars in one piece on Christmas Day as I was sat there on my mum’s stairs.
We’ll never know how differently history would have been written had Beagle 2 opened up fully and commenced operations on Mars. It might have found life there, or it might not have. We’ll never know. But what we do know is that, against all the odds, a British space-probe landed on Mars, and although the rest of the mission didn’t go ahead the Beagle 2 mission still inspired many, many people, and continues to to this day. In many ways, as they said at the presser on Friday, Beagle was success.
And that’s not just me being “typically British” and trying to paint a failure as a success, not at all, I’m not that starry-eyed, believe me. But we now know, for a fact, that Beagle 2 LANDED ON MARS, and that by itself is an amazing thing. I’m delighted for the Beagle team, and delighted for British science too, because can now say that we are one of the few countries to have landed a spacecraft on Mars, our name added to a very short and select list.
It’s just a shame that Colin Pilinger didn’t live to see the HiRISE images. I’m sure he would have been thrilled at the press conference on Friday. Not American-thrilled; he wouldn’t have leapt off his chair, punching the air and whooping. Rather I think he would have looked at the images spread out in his desk, smiled wryly, looked up at the watching press pack and, as the camera flashes exploded, nodded slowly in quiet approval, like the farmer at the end of “Babe” when he congratulates the piglet for rounding up the sheep.
Beagle 2’s story will now probably capture the imagination of the world again. It came so close to success, so close! I imagine there are word processors clacking away in Hollywood right now as people write film scripts. Good luck to them, because that story is a very complicated one, with towering highs and godawful lows. It has everything… a heroic, unconventional scientist fighting the establishment, and his peers, and winning, with the support of other outsiders, among them an “eccentric” artist and a broody pop star. I hope the film, when it’s made, tells the whole story, and includes how ESA carried Beagle to Mars without any enthusiasm, and have never given it any thought since it was lost. I hope it tells the tale of how Beagle 2 had many supporters and champions, but many critics and enemies too. When it comes out, and it will, I hope the film makes the mission’s supporters and champions smile proudly. And I hope that sitting there, in the darkened cinema, the critics and enemies feel guilty for what they said at the time, and for how they turned on one of British science’s most ambitious and dedicated scientists.
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