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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 08:21 GMT 09:21 UK
'I'm searching for life on Mars'
Beagle 2
Beagle 2 will head for Mars in mid-2003
Colin Pillinger is the head scientist of Beagle 2, the UK-led project to land on Mars. He tells in our weekly Real Time series how his role has evolved from designing the lander craft to recruiting the band Blur and artist Damien Hirst.

The role of a modern scientist in my case is to be a professor of PR as well as professor of planetary sciences. And in the meantime I've become a pop entrepreneur; I do a bit of art with Damien.

When Blur got involved we started getting science stories in NME

Because the UK doesn't give space research such as high a priority as other countries, it doesn't have as high a profile.

That's why Beagle 2 has to be different - in the beginning we didn't have any money, so we had to create a publicity machine to convince people that we had a project worth funding.

Colin Pillinger and Beagle 2
Colin Pillinger designed the interplanetary craft
When Blur got involved - the band composed a refrain to act as a call sign once Beagle 2 has landed - we started getting science articles in places where people don't have science stories.

Before we'd get a write-up by a science correspondent in a high-brow newspaper; now we get a science story written by the rock correspondent in the New Musical Express.

Is anybody out there?

Hooking up with Blur was a bit mutual. Two of the guys have always been keen amateur astronomers. The band was on tour in one of those places you can see a lot of the night sky and they began to wish the UK had a space programme.

Beagle 2
Part of the European Space Agency's 110m Mars Express mission
Launching June 2003 for six-month trip to Mars
They mentioned this to somebody who mentioned it to someone else who mentioned it to me - so I issued an invitation to come and see me.

I told them about Beagle 2 and my need to raise publicity and money for it. They said: 'A lot of publicity follows us around, how's about you use us?'

So we began to do that. They come along to exhibitions, stand on the stand and tell people about Beagle 2. This gets the right kind of people visiting the stand instead of the same people who are already converts.

Was I a fan before meeting them? I had a teenage son who had a Blur Parklife poster above his bed at the time, so I'd heard of Blur. I've always liked that kind of music - in fact my kids always used to tell me to turn it down.

Hirst painting
Detail of a Damien Hirst spot painting
Damien Hirst is involved too, thanks to an introduction from Alex James of Blur. One night watching a programme on Damien and his spot paintings, it occurred to me that his paintings could be useful.

When Beagle 2 lands on Mars, I'm going to need a sample to check that the instruments are still performing accurately. An array of spots would be ideal to compare the readings before take-off and after landing.

However it's not a simple spot painting - it has to fit within the constraints of the spacecraft - and between us we're designing this thing.

Man on the moon

My involvement with extraterrestrial activities goes back to the 1960s when I was one of the lucky few Britons to work on the first returned lunar samples brought back by the Apollo 11 mission.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses beside the US flag on the Moon
Colin Pillinger started out analysing lunar rocks
I'd been recruited the year before Neil Armstrong went to the Moon, yet what was most dramatic for me was when Frank Borman took the crew of Apollo Eight around the Moon at Christmas 1968.

That brought home to me that we could leave Earth, that getting down to the Moon wasn't as hard as a task as getting up off the Earth.

Life on Mars

Once on Mars, Beagle 2 is going to repeat all the experiments we did on Martian meteorites here on Earth. This could take us all the way to saying that we have discovered life on Mars.

Beagle 2 is named in tribute to Charles Darwin's ship

At the moment, there's a possibility that some of the signs we've found are as a result of contamination on Earth. So we want to go back to Mars to see if we get the same result.

My wife suggested naming Beagle 2 in tribute to Charles Darwin's ship. It was the ship that enabled Darwin to do his work on The Origin of the Species. What we're hoping Beagle 2 will allow us to do is say something categoric about whether evolution has taken place on another planet.

Real Time gives people a chance to tell their own stories in their own words. If you've got something to say, click here.

Colin Pillinger
"I didn't grow up wanting to be a space engineer"

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30 Jan 02 | Music
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