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Lost in Space, but Still on Track

Few scientific endeavours stir the imagination of the public the way space science does. Exploring infinite horizons, setting foot on other planets, and encountering new forms of life inspire fascination and even fear, but rarely indifference. With the success of the last European Space Agency ( ESA) Mars Express mission in 2003, Europe entered a new era in planetary exploration while setting out to search for life on Mars.On 25 December 2003, after a six-month journey, Mars Express entered Mars' orbit. Its mission: to collect data about Mars' atmosphere, structure, and composition. Ever since, it has been returning stunning images of the planet's surface along with evidence of water and carbon dioxide ice.

As part of the Mars Express project, a lander was also included to look for evidence of life and carry out geochemical analysis on the ground. The Beagle 2 lander detached from the orbiter on 19 December and was expected to reach the surface of Mars on Christmas Day, 2003. But no signals were ever received from the lander, and it was eventually declared lost in space.

Preparing Beagle 2 for its journey

The Space Research Centre (SRC) of the University of Leicester ( SRC) is one of the groups involved in the design of Beagle 2. They helped put together a set of miniature instruments at the end of Beagle 2's robotic arm, including a miniature x-ray spectrometer (XRS). "The X-ray spectrometer tells you what rocks are made of, which ultimately tells you something about the landing area," says Dean Talboys, one of the team scientists. Should life have been found on Mars, this information would have helped scientists better understand the Martian environment in which it was able to develop.

Now in the final year of his Ph.D., Talboys joined the SRC in 2002 to work on calibrating a spare copy of the XRS in the lab, so that the whole range of new conditions Beagle 2 would have encountered on Mars would not have affected the results. "To analyse raw data, you have to understand how the instrument may behave in its environment," he says. In contrast to the lab, he adds, "In the field, rocks will not be homogenous and perfectly flat; there will be temperature fluctuations and dust contaminations in the front of the instruments."

Also on the team was Gillian Butcher, who worked as an instrument scientist on the design and construction of the Beagle 2 XRS. Butcher joined the centre for her second postdoc in 2000, at a time when the project had only been running for a couple of years. "I joined at a fairly early stage, and I have seen this project grow," she says.

Artist's rendition of the Beagle 2 lander (All rights reserved Beagle 2)

Getting in the starting blocks

So what does it take to get to work on a mission like Mars Express? Both scientists agree that a background in physics and math is essential. Talboys' degree was in physics and astrophysics at Birmingham University in England, while Butcher's was in applied physics at Strathclyde University in Scotland.

Practical experience in related fields is also vital. Talboys made the most of the opportunities offered by his university´s Department of Astrophysics and Space Research getting down to the nitty-gritty of designing, building, and calibrating space instruments during summer placements and his final-year project. As for Butcher, she spent 2 years in a part-time M.Sc. project on light and lighting at University College London ( UCL) while working with the company Thorn Lighting. In 1990, she went to the University of Essex for a Ph.D. in physics on laser polarised fluorescence. Then she moved to University of Leicester where she carried out her first space-related project, building a detector for a satellite that has since been launched.

Both scientists mentioned the ability to work in a multidisciplinary team as a key to succeeding in this kind of work. "Teamwork is very important," says Butcher, because "you are working with engineers, geologists, and managers who have a wide range of skills." For this, adds Talboys, "you really have to be the kind of person who can ask others for support and advice, and show initiative." You should also expect to collaborate with scientists outside your own team. "Modern space science missions are tending toward large international projects where it really is no longer possible for one group or even one country to build the whole experiment," says Mark Sims, Beagle 2 mission manager. Moving between countries to maximise your training and research experience would thus certainly be a good idea.

Finally, "you need perseverance and dedication," says Butcher. The team had to meet strict deadlines for instrument integrationinto Beagle 2, in time for the launch of Mars Express. This also means you need good time-management skills, and the ability to multi-task and work efficiently, adds Talboys.

Reaching out

Extraterrestrials were not the only forms of life the Beagle 2 team was determined to reach. "Science doesn't get enough publicity," says Butcher. "But talk about sending things to Mars and everybody's interested, so as a scientist you have to make the most of these opportunities." The Beagle 2 team set up exhibits of the mission and opened the Lander Operations Control Centre (LOCC) at the National Space Centre, "the first of its kind to be in full view of the general public," says Talboys. The British National Space Centre ( BNSC) also organised outreach activities, while the Beagle 2 team gave talks geared specifically to schoolchildren. Both scientists saw this as a rewarding part of the job. "The imagination and enthusiasm of children were incredible," says Talboys, "It is really inspiring and you can get a real buzz out of it."

Lost in space?

Unfortunately, the team never got any signal back after Beagle 2 detached from the orbiter. To Butcher, what was especially difficult was not knowing that any specific failure had occurred. "You always hope that it is going to be OK tomorrow," she says.

Although Butcher was to be involved in data analysis too, at least she has the satisfaction of having achieved the first goal of building Beagle 2. The loss was probably more difficult, she suggests, for the scientists whose job was to start when the data would have been beginning to come back. For all the scientists involved in projects like this, though, a long wait and the risk of failure are facts of life. "When you look at some of the missions being launched, you have to wait a long time before getting the data," Butcher says, mentioning 7 to 8 years as an average time to prepare a mission. "This investment is of comparable length to the sequencing of the human genome," says Sims. "The difference with space science is that there is an added risk, and one that is not under your control." Mars Express, named for its unusually fast turn-around, had the advantage of not putting them through such a long wait. Then again, you might say they're still waiting.

? but still on track

Space research is a risky business. When a mission fails, "you just take stock and carry on," says Talboys. "You´ve always got the experience." Indeed, as he finishes his Ph.D. project, he is already thinking about his next career move. "Beagle 2 has left a huge legacy for planetary science; it really has generated a lot of opportunities for the future," he says.

Among these opportunities are the American Mars Science Laboratory ( MSL), to be launched by NASA in 2009, where the XRS and the drilling mole that was onboard Beagle 2 will be integrated into a single instrument, allowing scientists to determine geochemistry as the mole goes underground. Then there is the ESA's ExoMars rover mission scheduled for 2009, for which the SRC is projecting theuse of their life biomarker chip detector currently in development.

Closer to us, "Planetary research instrumentation and experiments for the search of life in space also help people on the Earth," Talboys continues. For example, to fit into the end of the robotic arm of Beagle 2, the XRS was made low-mass, low-volume, and low-power. This also made it an ideal candidate for commercialisation as a handheld device to be taken out into the field. It could be used, for example, "to detect heavy metals in the soil from pollution in the third world," he says.

As for Butcher, since the loss of Beagle 2 she has moved on to a new project. She is now helping to build an astronomical telescope based on a new concept which will be developed over the next 15 to 20 years. This has brought her full-circle, back to her original training in optics, even though she says this decision was essentially made for her. "My career has been quite varied in terms of the projects I have done," she says. "Many academics have stayed in the same subject, and I think that I have been restricting my options [by changing subjects too often]." Changing projects gives you many skills, but "the problem is convincing people of that." Still, she stresses that she enjoyed every project she's been involved with.

New horizons

"Of course we were extremely disappointed when we lost [Beagle 2]," says Talboys, "These missions only come along a handful of times in your career, and you want the mission to succeed-- to get data to analyse." But to him the experience and knowledge gained working on Beagle 2 is "like a jumping board to start developing other instruments. It really is a strong foundation for other research."