Review: In search of Martian rock

13th December 2002 at 00:00

The Beagle Voyages: from Earth to Mars
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Until September 2003

This time next year, a gold-coloured, clam-shaped device, little bigger than a dustbin lid, will start digging about on the surface of Mars.

This piece of space exploration equipment, called Beagle 2, will have travelled 250 million miles in seven months to begin its search for evidence of life on this rusty, windblown planet.

If anyone or anything happens to be wandering past where it lands, they will hear this strange little metal disc playing music.

And the performers, the British band Blur, will be able to claim they are the first band ever to have played on Mars.

Beagle 2 has taken its name from the ship that in the 1830s carried Charles Darwin on the trips that provided the evidence for his ground-breaking theory of evolution.

An imaginative exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich examines the many parallels between these two British-led journeys of exploration.

In many ways, Darwin's journey to South America pushed him further out of reach than the Beagle 2 will be when it's sitting on the surface of Mars.

It was a year before Darwin, on the Beagle, received his first letters from home, whereas Beagle 2 will be able to send back information to Earth in about nine minutes.

Once it has landed, it will send its call sign, the specially composed piece by Blur, "Beagle 2". It will then calibrate its cameras using a design by the artist Damien Hirst, claimed as the first artwork on Mars.

For both the original Beagle and its space-travelling namesake, the voyages were intended to fill in details at the frontiers of our knowledge.

Exhibition curator Karin Buch-Nielsen points out that, as with Mars today, in the 1830s much remained unknown about the coastal areas of South America. Like Beagle 2, Darwin's trip had a far from certain outcome. Both journeys, she says, are spectacular stories of endeavour.

There isn't much left to see of the Beagle: only a small round box made from the timbers, although the ship's keel may lie in the Essex river where it was stripped for scrap in the 1870s.

There are education projects attached to the exhibition: workshops for key stages 2 and 3 on "Exploring the Red Planet" start next month. And in the summer, key stage 2 science events will look at rockets.

This is a thought-provoking collection of artefacts that places modern and Victorian technologies side by side, and shows that there are as many connections as there are contrasts.

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