WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Early Christmas morning, London time, a 70-pound British spacecraft, launched last June aboard a Russian rocket and hitchhiking behind a sophisticated European Space Agency orbital vehicle, is set to touch down on the surface of Mars.
The lander, named the Beagle 2 -- in honor of the sailing ship that transported Charles Darwin on his historic voyage to the Galapagos Islands in 1831 -- represents an ingenious but daring entry in what is becoming a race to explore the red planet and establish once and for all whether it ever has harbored living organisms.
If it succeeds, it could show up its bigger and much more expensive American cousins.
The Beagle 2 is only the first of three new landers set to probe the Martian surface within the next month. NASA also has two robots en route, called Spirit and Opportunity, that will touch down on Jan. 4 and Jan. 25, respectively.
The NASA landers are larger and heavier -- and mobile. Wherever Beagle 2 lands, it will have to stay put, much like the twin Viking spacecraft that set down on Mars in 1976, sent back the first images of the planet's surface and its salmon-hued atmosphere, and analyzed -- inconclusively -- small samples of Martian soil.
What the little probe lacks in size, however, it makes up in resourcefulness. It is the vision of Colin Pillinger, a 60-year-old planetary science professor at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England. Nearly six years ago, he conceived of sending a low-cost landing craft along with the Express orbiter.
"When the European Space Agency decided in 1997 to go ahead with a mission to send a satellite into orbit round Mars, I managed to convince officials that we had to carry a lander as well," Pillinger said in a December 2002 interview with the British newspaper, The Observer. "That is how Beagle was born."
Pillinger managed to build the whole package for only about $50 million, or about 15 percent of the cost of just one of the new NASA landers. Pillinger had to raise much of the cash himself. Among his ploys was allowing a British rock band called Blur to use the robot's radio signal for a successful landing to broadcast one of its tunes. "There was nothing I wouldn't have done to raise money for Beagle," he said.
Despite the limited money and time, Pillinger and his colleagues managed to pull off one of the great feats in the history of space exploration: creating a sophisticated but bargain-basement robot in record time. They secured ESA's permission to attach Beagle 2 to the Mars Express orbiter for the ride -- with one condition: The landing package had to be detached five days before the rendezvous with the planet to minimize the chance it would interfere with Express's successful orbital capture.
Wedded to the Mars Express since its launch last June 2 and detached last Friday, Beagle 2 presently is in a free-fall trajectory toward the planet. It carries no maneuvering jets or even aerodynamic controls to pinpoint its landing. Its course was plotted like a golfer eyes a flag -- an aim and a swing. Once separated from the Express, Beagle 2 either hits its target or not.
So far, the trajectory seems to be near perfect. Pillinger said as of Monday the calculations show Beagle 2 will land as planned, parachuting into an area about 9 miles wide and 50 miles long in a low-lying basin called Isidis Planitia, located near the Martian equator.
"It's pretty close to a bull's eye," Pillinger told the Toronto Star in a recent interview.
Isidis Planitia is a 900-mile-wide, low-lying region -- scientists think it is the remains of an ancient impact crater -- that connects with the low plains that cover most of the Martian northern hemisphere. The area is considered one of the most likely to have been underwater at one time.
"We know life started with water, but we don't know how it started," explained Michael Meyers, a planetary scientist with NASA in Washington. Hence all three new Mars landers are headed for areas where mission planners think the water was.
The Christmas Eve landing figures to keep Pillinger's team on pins and needles until they hear the confirmation signal -- courtesy of Blur. During the descent phase, an off-the-shelf heat shield -- which was designed for the Huygens probe, which will plummet into the atmosphere of Saturn's giant moon, Titan, next year -- will brake the lander. Then a huge parachute will deploy to slow the fall and airbags will inflate to cushion the landing.
Everyone involved acknowledges a failure at any point will kill the mission.
Assuming success, once down, the craft will begin unfolding, clamshell-style, its impressive array of scientific instruments, several of which are identical to those carried by Spirit and Opportunity. In addition to its twin, high-resolution stereoscopic digital cameras, Beagle 2's list includes:
-- An energetic neutron atoms analyzer to study how the solar wind affects the Martian atmosphere;
-- A planetary fourier spectrometer to study the atmosphere's composition and circulation;
-- A visible and infrared mineralogical mapping spectrometer to determine surface soil composition and evolution;
-- A sub-surface sounding radar altimeter to search for water deep under the surface, and
-- An ultraviolet and infrared Mars atmospheric spectrometer to determine the atmosphere's composition in more detail.
Possibly the most interesting device of the bunch, however, is nicknamed "The Mole." It is a cigar-sized probe on a tether that will worm its way into the soil, retrieve samples, and dump them into one of 12 ovens that will heat them enough to release gases that can be analyzed by onboard mass spectrometers.
In particular, the instruments will be looking for evidence of an isotope called carbon 13.
"For a host of complex reasons, raised levels of carbon 13 are unequivocal indications of the presence of living organisms, past or present," Pillinger said. "In other words, even if Martian life forms are now extinct we will be able to show that they once existed."
Phil Berardelli is UPI's Science & Technology Editor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
(Editors: UPI Photo WAS2003122301 is available)