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Monday, August 2, 1999 Published at 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK


Brits hit Mars

Beagle Two is designed to unfold its solar panels after landing

A British spacecraft looking for alien life seems set to land on Mars in 2003, after the UK Science Minister pledged £5 million of additional funding.

Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury: "It will land on Christmas Day 2003"
Beagle Two aims to travel to Mars aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission. When Mars Express enters the red planet's orbit, Beagle Two will be released and descend to the surface.

There it will send out a "mole" to gather samples of rock, soil and gas which will be examined by equipment on Beagle Two for chemical traces of life.

BBC News' Rachel Ellison reports on the mission
Evidence that life once existed on Mars has come from Martian meteorites found on Earth, but is not regarded as proof.

£25 million mission

UK Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, told the BBC that the government would provide £5 million towards the estimated £25 million cost of the mission.

He said that the Beagle Two team had already arranged £13m of funding from industrial and other sponsors, as well as £3m from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

Professor Pillinger: "No Swiss bank account"
The Beagle Two team is led by Professor Colin Pillinger at the Open University. He would not confirm to News Online that £13m of sponsorship had been raised but said the team have until October to convince ESA that they can raise the rest of the money.

Speaking to News Online, a spokesperson for the Department of Trade and Industry ruled out any further government funding in the event of a shortfall.

[ image: Professor Pillinger has now raised £21m]
Professor Pillinger has now raised £21m
Lord Sainsbury said: "It's exciting science and an enormous engineering challenge and I think it will be a demonstration of the creativity of British scientists in this field."

He believes that technology for sampling and analysing other planets and then sending back the data could have commercial potential, if it is proved to work by Beagle Two.

British backing

Beagle Two will weigh about 60 kilograms (132 pounds) and be the size of a microwave oven. It will land using air bags to cushion the impact.

[ image: Beagle Two will be released by the orbiting Mars Express]
Beagle Two will be released by the orbiting Mars Express
In addition to the mole and analytical equipment, it will carry solar panels to provide power and cameras and microscopes.

Fundraising publicity has emphasised Beagle Two's British origin and the spacecraft is likely to carry a Union Jack on its side.

UK artist Damien Hirst is reported to have provided paintings to travel on the spacecraft. These would be used as test cards for the cameras. Members of the pop group Blur have also been involved in publicity.

Lord Sainsbury will announce more details of the government's support for Beagle Two on Tuesday in London.

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