ME and Ophelia

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Go, Beagle!

One of my favourite Sunday Times reporters, Bryan Appleyard has written the most fantastic and heartwarming account of Beagle 2. It is such an amazing and exciting story, I am reprinting the whole report in hope that you will read it in full.

I'll certainly be following the news of this story as it develops over Christmas and New Year. Hope you will too.

On Christmas morning, the spaceship Beagle 2 will touch down on the Red Planet. And it's the brains of Britain that have made it all possible. Will we finally discover life on Mars?

This is easy. Just get a bit of rock and stick it in an oven. No problem. But there’s a catch. Well, several million catches, actually.

But here are the big ones. The oven is a tube only 6 millimetres across, and it has to be heated up to around 1,000C. There are, in fact, 12 ovens, all of which have to be heated up. You have to do this, along with a dozen other things, using no more power in 24 hours than that consumed by a 60-watt light bulb in an hour. You also need a machine that not only detects the carbon-dioxide molecules given off by the rock at certain critical temperatures, but also tells you what kind of CO2 it is. This entire apparatus has to weigh no more than a few kilograms, and has to be strong enough to survive a total journey of about 250m miles and the 90 G-force impact that will result when it is dropped 3ft onto a hard surface. Try that with your desktop.

Oh, yes, and you won’t be there to do any of this, because it has to be done on a planet more than 60m miles away. To get there you have to talk the European Space Agency (Esa) into letting you piggyback on their orbiting satellite on board a Russian Soyuz Fregat rocket.

You also have to rethink everything anybody ever knew about building spacecraft to land on other planets, because there’s not enough weight to build in retro or guidance rockets, and existing parachute and airbag technology is not good enough. You have to do all this in less than five years for about £45m. Tricky.

But it’s worth a shot because, if you can do all that, you might just pull off one of the most sensational scientific coups of all time.You might find life on Mars.

And guess what: we, the Brits, have done it. Well, all except the last bit, but, very early on Christmas morning, we’ll know whether that’s going to happen as well. The British Beagle 2 mission is the most wonderful, zany, off-the-wall, left-field, ad-hoc, put-it-together-in-the-spare-bedroom, skin-of-its-teeth project of my or anybody else’s lifetime. It is, as one American scientist put it, an attempt to score a home run by finding evidence of past or present life on Mars with one absurdly cheap but phenomenally ingenious shot. If it works - and, dear God, I hope it does - it will embarrass Nasa, Esa, the Russians and anybody else who thought several hundred billion dollars and about four decades were the minimum entry costs to doing big space.

Nasa will be particularly embarrassed because, soon after Beagle 2 bounces down, two of its rovers will be landing on Mars. Oh, sure, they’ll move about a bit, but scientifically they’re nowhere near as good as Beagle. More to the point, if those little ovens find what they’re looking for, within a few months we shall know the answer to the one question we all ask ourselves. “No, Earthlings,” this little dog will yap, madly conserving its power as it does so, “you are not alone.”

But first, let’s put this in perspective. Space exploration has turned out to be more of a hassle than anybody expected. It’s over 40 years since humans got into Earth orbit, just over 30 since we went to the moon and, let’s be honest, not much has happened since. There have been Mars landers, but their results have been inconclusive. There have been craft sent into the outer reaches of the solar system, and an international space station is now limping along. But remember what we expected: manned missions to the planets and then the stars, routine travel to colonies on the moon or, if you believe the movies, exploratory missions to Jupiter and the heart of existence should have happened in 2001.

None of that materialised, because space is so difficult, expensive and hard to justify. And so, except when a space shuttle blew up, we lost interest. In fact, the British lost interest before anybody else. After the war we planned to be at the cutting edge of space exploration. We had, after all, won and we had built cool planes like the Spitfire. And so we built not-quite-so-cool rockets with names like Blue Streak, Black Night and Black Arrow. But they were tiny and a bit naff compared with the mighty and supercool Saturn V that put Americans on the moon in the 1960s. It seemed clear that space required the kind of money we didn’t have. And so, just as the Black Arrow successfully put the Prospero satellite into orbit in 1971, we pulled out and our space destiny was reduced to providing satellites or instruments for American, Russian or European, largely French, launchers.

This left behind a large pool of highly gifted but frustrated aerospace engineers and scientists, as well as a surprisingly large group of world-class precision-engineering companies. All of them, if they were lucky enough to be able to get involved with big space, could only do so at one remove. They had all the Right Stuff, but always somebody else had the Necessary Stuff: hardware and money. Then, in 1997, Esa, to which we are one of the stingier contributors, announced that it was going to send an orbiter to Mars in 2003. Since this was the year in which Mars would be closer to Earth than it had been for 60,000 years - a mere 60m miles - Esa could get there unprecedentedly quickly. Hence the name of its mission, Mars Express.

Down in Milton Keynes a pair of ears pricked up. You wouldn’t have been able to tell, because they were concealed by bushy red-blond hair and large muttonchop whiskers. They belonged to Colin Pillinger. Now this Pillinger is quite a guy. A planetary scientist and part-time farmer, he inspires adoration and anger in about equal proportions. When I started researching this article, it was clear that certain people would rather I didn’t speak to him at all. Indeed, they almost seemed to be denying his existence. One list of Beagle contacts I was given completely omitted his name.

The reason for this was that he had fiercely controlled - or stolen, as his enemies put it - all the publicity surrounding Beagle. It seemed that whenever one of the engineering companies involved, or even the lead industrial contractor, EADS Astrium, tried to get its logo on television, Pillinger’s enormous whiskers would mysteriously get in the way. He is unapologetic. He understands publicity and he knows Beagle needs a front man: “I have to believe in this all the time and, if I don’t, I mustn’t show any sign that I don’t. I’m the guy who has to say, "Don’t worry, the cheque’s in the post’ and 'Don’t worry, I’ll still love you in the morning.’”

We are talking in the departure-lounge-style cafe of the Open University in Milton Keynes, where Pillinger is head of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute. With his beard and glittering eye, he is like the Ancient Mariner. He has a tale to tell and he fixes me with his gaze and I “cannot choose but hear”. He is 60, and 34 years ago, in 1969, when he was just a chemist like any other, he got the chance to look at a piece of lunar rock brought back by the Americans. At the time, it was still thought possible that there had been real seas on the moon and there might be fossils of micro-organisms in the rocks. He saw within 20 minutes that it wasn’t true, but he had been bitten by the planetary bug. He went on to co-create a whole new science of studying the history of the sun through particles deposited on lunar rock.

He went to Cambridge and then to the Open University, which, as a result, found itself with one of the leading planetary-science units in the world. But - and this was to be crucial for Beagle - it also became one of the best builders of sophisticated analytical instruments. “We were always pushing the boundaries. You can only answer questions by being as close as possible to the sensitivity and precision levels of your instruments. All the way down the line we had to build the equipment to answer the questions. You couldn’t solve the mysteries without the tools.”

As a result, it was the OU that proved, in the late 1990s, that the meteorite AHL84001 that was found in Antarctica came from Mars, and the OU was also the star of the first wave of publicity when what were thought to be the fossils of bacteria were found in that rock. Pillinger was in front of the cameras from 7am to 6pm - until lunchtime in the US, when Bill Clinton stole the show, claiming it was an American success story on the television news.

The meteorites didn’t prove to Pillinger that there is or has been life on Mars - the little tubes may or may not be fossils - but neither did they disprove it. He still needed the answer to the biggest of big questions: is there life on Mars?

Again, some perspective. Mars, as the brightest and most recognisable object in the night sky after the moon, has long gripped the human imagination. For thousands of years, people have speculated about Martian civilisations. In the 19th century, the great Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw what he called canali on the surface of the planet. The word could mean “channels” but was immediately translated into English as “canals”. They were interpreted as intelligently constructed waterways for irrigating the land from polar ice caps. The world went Mars-mad.

The English writer Gerald Heard dreamt of Martians as super-bees “of perhaps two inches in length... as beautiful as the most beautiful of any flower, any beetle, moth or butterfly”. But a far greater writer, H G Wells, imagined them as monsters possessed of “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” that would eliminate humanity and annex our planet. Pulp sci-fi poured from the presses, describing the ways of the Martians in detail, especially their irritating habit of carrying off our women. It was all a horrible mistake. Sixty years after Schiaparelli saw his canali, another astronomer, Eugene Antoniadi, looked again and realised the lines were an optical illusion. They were random surface features that formed into lines when viewed through a certain type of lens. Suddenly, Mars was turned into just another lump of rock.

By the 1970s, most scientists believed neither in Martian life nor in any other form of extraterrestrial life. But there was a chance. The big question could still be asked. The US Viking landers in the 1970s set out to answer it. But, as with the meteorites, the results were infuriatingly inconclusive. The instruments did produce strange readings, which one scientist at least, Gil Levin, insists showed evidence of life. But the consensus was that the readings were odd because we hadn’t correctly understood the Martian atmosphere. The only way to know for sure was to go back with better instruments.

This is easier said than done. Nasa is a ponderous organisation and, when it did get round to going back to Mars, it suffered some catastrophic failures. But there was one big success: the little Sojourner lander, a microwave oven on wheels, which crept over the Martian rocks in 1997. It didn’t have much science on board, but it did show we could still get there and, now, we could move about. Nasa has now launched its two MERs - Mars Exploration Rovers - which will land in the new year. But again the science is lacking. Enter the dog.

When Pillinger heard about Mars Express, his first reaction was that it should have a lander attached - why bother going all that way and not landing? “He called a meeting at the Royal Society,” says Mark Sims of the Space Research Centre at Leicester University, “and laid down a challenge: could the UK or Europe build a lander for Mars? Most of us thought he was crazy, but we were still intrigued enough to start thinking about a concept. By mid-1997 we’d convinced ourselves we could do it.” It was crazy, because nobody but the Russians and Americans have ever built landers: they cost a fortune and they usually took at least a decade to develop. Pillinger and Sims, who became project manager, had six years and no money. Sims was later to describe the effort as being like “crawling backwards over broken glass all the way to Mars”.

In fact, even though Beagle is now well on its way, they still haven’t got any money. Raising the £45m seems to have been done with a Barclaycard and mirrors. Pillinger’s idea was that they’d get sponsorship, and at one point he called in Charles Saatchi to fix it. He also got Damien Hirst to do a spot painting that would be carried on board, to calibrate the cameras, and Blur to write a tune that would be Beagle’s call sign. He did everything, in fact, to make Beagle look sexy to companies that might like to see their logo on Mars. In the end, much of the financing came from organisations who underwrote the project in the expectation of being paid back by the sponsor. The four big givers are the OU, DTI, Esa and Astrium, Beagle’s industrial leader. But by the time the sponsorship issue became critical, the stock market had crashed and 9/11 had happened. Companies stopped taking risks, and Beagle flew logoless and with a massive overdraft.

Meanwhile, designing the dog was a nightmare. For a while the team worked on a pyramid shape with triangular petals that would open on landing. Then, one day in a hotel, they looked at each other and realised that it wouldn’t work. If it landed on the wrong side, they couldn’t be sure it would be able to right itself. Sims grabbed a beer mat and sketched an alternative. “What type of beer mat?” I ask him. “Hang on.” He reaches into his briefcase and fishes out a folder containing a Kronenbourg mat. There on the back is his little sketch - an opened pocket watch with an arm like an Anglepoise lamp. It didn’t matter which way up this landed, it could always open itself out. Having been afflicted, by this time, by Beaglemania, I almost wept at the simple beauty of the sketch.

“From that point on,” says Sims, a man more prone than me to understatement, “we had a viable design.” But all other design problems pale into insignificance next to the big one: weight. Esa first said that Mars Express could carry 180 kilograms of landers. The plan then was to have Beagle and a French scheme called Netlander, which would plant several objects on the surface to measure Martian weather and seismic activity. The weight “budget” then plummeted to 120 kilograms before coming to ground at 60, the weight of a small, thin man - by which time Netlander had been withdrawn. They did finally negotiate the installed weight on Mars Express up to 74 kilograms, but it’s still pretty pathetic.

Into this the British engineering industry would have to shrink a device for ejecting Beagle, spinning, into space, an aero-shell to protect the craft on entry into the Martian atmosphere, a drogue parachute to steady it, a main parachute to slow it down, gas bags to protect it on impact, the carbon-fibre and Kevlar body of Beagle, a robot arm, a radio transceiver, an aerial, solar panels, batteries, a computer, a horrendous bowlful of electronic spaghetti, altimeters, accelerometers and God knows what else even before they’d fitted the scientific instruments that were the point of the whole thing.

As I said, tricky or, as far as most space scientists were concerned, impossible. But a super-hero was waiting in the wings. Is it a nerd? Is it a geek? It’s both: it’s Spitfire Man. Spitfire Man is, in fact, many people: the inheritors of that uniquely British engineering tradition that produced, among other things, a second-world-war fighter plane that broke every imaginable rule. The Spitfire was a pig to mass-produce but it flew like a bird, fought like a tiger and was fantastically beautiful. It is the sort of thing that, in spite of everything, we still do best - most of the world’s best fast cars are produced in Britain. Contemporary Spitfire Man, to eyes and minds jaded by celebrity culture, is a bit of a bore. He specialises in bad pullovers and hamburger-like shoes, and tends to talk in a flat, regional accent. He doesn’t get paid much and, though British to the core, he may well work for a foreign-owned firm. But ask him to build, say, a mass spectrometer weighing a few pounds - usually they weigh about half a ton - and Spitfire Man will oblige.

Dennis Leigh is a Spitfire Man who happens to have a spare bedroom in his house in Newcastle-under-Lyme. He also has a company called Compact Science and Technology which employs four people - three of whom are himself, his wife, Cynthia, and his son James, whose bedroom it used to be. He could be rich, but every time he gets a company going, he leaves because he hates doing the same thing twice. Leigh is Mr Mass Spectrometer. The mass spectrometer is a machine that tells you what gases are made of. Along with the ovens and various other bits, it forms the core of the Gas Analysis Package that takes up one-third of the space inside Beagle. It is this that will find out whether we are alone. But old mass spectrometers used to fill a room, and even the new ones weigh about half a ton. Pillinger needed one that weighed no more than a few kilograms, so he called in Leigh. In fact, he first called him in to do this for an Esa craft called Rosetta, designed to land on a comet. In the event, Rosetta has still not been launched. The machine put together for Beagle in James’s bedroom is a gem. Even to untrained eyes it reeks of design quality, a tiny, intricate mass of valves and tubes and a very powerful magnet to examine the fumes from those burnt rocks. Apart from the Rosetta machine, nothing like it has ever been built before and certainly nothing like it has ever landed on Mars. Like so much else on Beagle, it has broken new ground.

Wellcome is looking into its design for medical applications and there is a scheme to plant several of them around the world to measure greenhouse gases in real time. For the first time, that would tell us, minute by minute, how much we were damaging the environment.

Or there is Dave Northey, another Spitfire Man. He works for Analyticon, a mathematical modelling company, and he designed Beagle’s big parachute. This is a 10-metre “ringsail” chute, which had to be fitted into a space originally designed for an earlier one only eight metres across and had to weigh less than three kilograms. It is made of the kind of nylon used in the spinnakers of racing yachts, and it takes two men two days to fold it into the exact shape that will ensure it fits and opens. It was the first parachute to be made by Per Lindstrand’s balloon company and it’s probably the best in the world. Of course, it had to be designed and made quicker than any previous high-tech chute. “It was a tight programme,” says Northey. Spitfire Man never overstates anything.

Or maybe you’d prefer Jason Hall of Roke Manor Research. He and his team had virtually no time to reinvent the RAT. This is the radio altimeter trigger that will tell Beagle it is about 200 metres above the Martian surface and that now might be as good a time as any to inflate the gas bags. It has to be fitted into a tiny, moon-shaped slot in Beagle’s shell and weigh less than 200 grams. And, since we know little about the radar reflectivity of the Martian surface, it has to take two readings and work out for itself how high it is. A few seconds out either way and Beagle will be just a hunk of junk - either because the gas bags opened too early and lost too much gas, or because they opened too late. And so on and so on.

Eighty per cent of the project’s subcontractors are British (based if not owned) and 100% of them did the impossible faster and lighter than has ever been done before. Patriotic? Well, sometimes you just have to be. In fact, I’d defy any British chest not to swell with pride at the contemplation of the finished Beagle. It is a peach. It’s tiny - the size of a small cafe table top - and inside there’s not a millimetre of spare space. And it’s unlike any spacecraft ever built. Most spacecraft are like Ford Transits - empty boxes into which you can stuff loads of other boxes. But Beagle’s weight budget meant they couldn’t afford any boxes at all. Everything in Beagle has to slot in tightly and, as a result, had to be made in some pretty weird shapes. Electronics, for example, are normally just a black box, but on Beagle the 16 layers of circuit board curve round the perimeter of the lander. It was built without any connectors, which meant there were 800 solder joints and the space was so tiny that Astrium’s people could only do these at the rate of eight a day. In addition, the electronics are used as a heater for the battery, which would cease to function if allowed to cool down to the Martian night-time temperature of -90C.

The integration of Beagle’s design is perhaps the single most staggering innovation in the project. It is a buildingful of technology inside a piece of carry-on luggage. Anyway, between 1998 and 2001 all of this design effort rattled along around the country, penniless and somewhat uncoordinated. Then, with time getting short, the project was rationalised under the leadership of EADS Astrium in Stevenage.

“We only just did it in time,” says Barrie Kirk of Astrium, chief Spitfire Man. “We got some of the stuff as late as December last year, and we had to deliver it to Toulouse in February.” Esa was also getting jumpy. Nasa was called in to audit the project. The Americans concluded it was brilliant but high-risk, especially the descent and landing phase. Beagle would need more money for testing. Esa delivered and more testing was done. Esa also paid for the super-sterile room at the OU in which Beagle was assembled. Stray Earth bacteria could mess up the experiments and, in addition, there is the International Agreement on Planetary Protection, which stipulates that we must not pollute other planets with our bugs. It would be terrible to find friendly Martians and then kill them all with flu.

And so, miraculously, the completed Beagle 2 was screwed onto Mars Express at Toulouse and then flown to Baikonur in Kazakhstan to be shoved inside the nose cone of the waiting Soyuz Fregat. On June 2, this dependable Russian rocket dependably flung the whole shebang out of the grasp of Earth’s gravity and onto its looping trajectory towards Mars.

Almost everything I’d heard about this mad mission had given me knots of tension in my neck.How could they do it? How did they do it? Would it work? But, with eerie understatement, the boffins and Spitfire Men had told me one last thing that caused my stress meter to seize up. Beagle detaches itself from Mars Express when it is five days away from Mars. Its batteries are then fully charged and, to conserve the charge, the craft is shut down but for one small clock. Nothing will be heard from Beagle. Then it will contact the Martian atmosphere, and the descent phase - drogue chute, main chute, gas bags - will swing into operation. Still nothing will be heard from Beagle. Then, all being well, it will land, the bags will detach and drop the little dog 3ft onto the surface of the deep depression known as Isidis Planitia. This site, a couple of kilometres below the usual surface level of Mars, was chosen to give the chute a few moments longer to slow the descent. Beagle should then open and the petals of its solar array will unfold. It is now early on Christmas morning, and still nothing will be heard from Beagle. The reason for this continued silence is that its radio has to be so small and light that it cannot broadcast all the way back to Earth. It has to broadcast to either the American orbiter Mars Odyssey or Mars Express itself, both of which have radios powerful enough to relay the signal on to Earth. Odyssey comes over the horizon two hours after the Beagle has landed. Then - oh, please - it should hear the tinkle of Blur’s call sign and, moments later, in Leicester, Stevenage and Milton Keynes, they’ll hear it too.

I asked every one of them how they could cope with this awful, long, deathly silence. “Oh, yes,” they all said, “we’re ready for that.” These guys may not be cool in any fashionable sense. But, my God, they are cool. A couple of days after that, the science will swing into action. The robot arm will deploy. It’s called a Position Adjustable Workbench, but they just made up this name because they liked the acronym “Paw” as a way of continuing the dog theme. Stereo cameras will check out the landscape and a little drill, designed by a Chinese dentist, will crawl out to bore into the rocks. It will crawl back to deliver its specimens, which will be transferred to the ovens and heated. The fumes will then flow through the valves and tubes of Dennis Leigh’s lovely little gadget. And then...?

Nobody is committing themselves to a view on what they will find. What they are looking for, above all, is a chemical combination peculiar to life: organic matter alongside carbonate. This is what you find in Earth rocks and it signals both the stuff and structure of life. It may be life that still exists beneath the radiation-soaked surface of Mars, or it may be life that existed long ago in a more hospitable climate. Nobody says it will happen - but nobody says it won’t. The reason is that over the past 30 years the issue of extraterrestrial life has become respectably scientific again. Nasa has opened an astrobiology institute to study the idea; even the Vatican has an observatory in Arizona looking for alien theologies.

There have been two key findings. One was the discovery of other planets orbiting other stars. The other is the discovery of extremophiles: life forms on Earth that live in conditions previously thought utterly hostile to anything living - alongside superhot vents in the ocean floor, deep in the Antarctic ice or in solid rocks like the wonderfully named Slimes (subsurface lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems) that live on a diet of rock two miles down. If such things can live, then the range of environments that can sustain life is massively increased.

And if they do find life? What then? “I don’t think I’d have any trouble finding money for the next mission,” says Pillinger drily. But the real answer is, we’d all go into speculative overdrive. What else is out there? What does this mean for us, for our religions, our self-esteem, our meaning? Did life, as many now think, first come to Earth from Mars and are, therefore, the Martians we’ve dreamt about and searched for all these years daily visible to us in any mirror? And we’d be asking these questions not because of things done in Baikonur or Cape Kennedy, but in Milton Keynes, Stevenage and Leicester, and because of a bunch of harebrained British scientists, engineers, techno-freaks, geeks, nerds and saddos who decided to build a little dog, hitch a lift on a rocket and fling it across the void to Mars. And all without a decent pullover.

“The guys who worked on this,” says Pillinger, “did it because they wanted to, and you can’t get better motivation than that, no matter how much you pay them.” And why is it called Beagle 2? It was a name dreamt up by Judith Pillinger, Colin’s wife. Beagle 1 was the ship in which Charles Darwin, yet another Brit, sailed. Pillinger is now trying to get the remains of this Beagle lifted from the Essex marshes.

On that voyage, Darwin glimpsed a pattern behind the riotous creativity of nature. That pattern was evolution through natural selection. “Thus,” he wrote, “from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Our world, struggling to cope with this new definition of grandeur, was never to be the same again. Beagle 2 aspires to extend that pattern into space and, if it succeeds, we will have to confront another redefinition, just as momentous. And we, the Brits, will have done it again. You’ve got to hand it to us. We just won’t leave stuff alone. Go, Beagle.

Courtesy The Sunday Times, Cover story: Landing of hope and glory by Bryan Appleyard, December 14, 2003

# posted by Ingrid J. Jones @ 12/14/2003
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