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Thursday, May 08, 2014

Colin Pillinger - Beagle 3 - Would Be A Fitting Memorial

Prof Pillinger was the driving force behind the ultimately doomed Mars lander, and was awarded a CBE in 2003.

His spokesman said he suffered a brain haemorrhage at his home in Cambridge and later died in hospital.

His family said his death was "devastating and unbelievable".
How the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission would have looked on Mars
He was best-known for the Beagle 2 mission to Mars, which was supposed to land on the planet on Christmas Day 2003 and search for signs of life, but didn't transmit and was presumed crashed.

He became a professor in interplanetary science at the Open University in 1991.
      Beagle II has his brainchild. It was built on a shoestring and made so light that ESA couldn't find any excuse not to include it with their probe to the red planet.

      Against all of the expectations of our political class it became incredibly popular, and a source of pride, across Britain.

       Which shows good judgement by the people - finding life on Mars means life must be common across the universe. One life creating accident on Earth is possible but 2 and only 2 isn't. If there is a more important philosophical question than "are we alone in the universe" I have yet to hear it.

       So they relabelled it a spaceprobe in its own right rather than just an experiment (& gave him a CBE).

      Then it failed, as scientific experiments (& half of all Mars probes) often do if they are pushing the envelope.

       The proper thing to do was to send another. With the development work already done a new probe, tweaked in line with experience, would have been cheaper and more reliable. This is how generations of, edge of the envelope, aircraft were produced.

        Instead ESA said they would take it over and do it "more efficiently" at 10 times the cost & our Westminster MPs explained to him, from the eminence of their technical knowledge, the reason for his failure. He hadn't spent enough or taken long enough.

        ESA got their budget. Beagle 3 is still unlaunched. Yet another example of how our "space budget" largely isn't used for space but for co-opting something people are willing to see money spent on and then hijacking the money for the bureaucracy.


        So how about this.

        I have written before about cubesats ("black boxes" 10cm on a side launched into space - as revolutionary to space experimentation as containerisation was for shipping). And of how an engine is being designed that can put drive a cubesat, or a cluster of several, across the solar system. I suggested then they would be ideal for exploring and assaying the asteroids beyond Mars.

       Cubesats work because of Moore's Law, that computer capacity doubles every 18 months, means devices can be made proportionately smaller.

        So lets see how much smaller. Beagle II was launched 11 years ago. Add a couple of years development time to 13 years and by Moore's Law capacity is up (2^8.6) 400 times. The original was 33.2 kg so that implies current equivalence of 1/10th of a kilogram - far lower than cubesats regularly are.

       Finding microscopic life doesn't require size. Even a drill to find material beneath the surface, which is where any life on Mars is likely to be, need not be big. In fact, because of the square cube law, landing a small probe is easier than a large one.

         Possibly we are talking about a cluster of 3 cubesats rather than just one. I don't know enough to have an educated opinion.

         But I do know that cubesats (40% of all the ones in the world have Glaswegian hardware) are being put in orbit now for under £100,000 and are a technology which is game changing for space development.

          Beagle III would be much more complicated than 1 communications cube in Earth orbit. But how much more. It looks to me like the cost would be likely to be several million £s which is less than small change to government.

           Less than we spend subsidising 1 single windmill. Or less than 1 metre of the new Forth Bridge is costing.

           Worth spending to answer arguably the ultimate question about life and the Universe? I would think Westminster, Holyrood, Tom Hunter and Bill Gates would fight for the opportunity to fund it.

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