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

In space, no one can hear you scream, but anyone on Mars next year can listen to music from Blur, part of a British-led mission to the red planet. Sean Coughlan boldly goes to find out more

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.

Darwin spent five years on the Beagle, visiting the Cape Verde Islands, the Falklands, the Galapagos Islands and Australia, before returning to England. It was not an easy undertaking for a man who never got over seasickness. Beagle 2 will have to survive speeds of up to 25,000 miles an hour and a parachute descent on to a target area the size of the south of England.

Even though the Beagle`` later became synonymous with Darwin and his theories of evolution, its prime task had been detailed mapping and surveying of the east and west coasts of South America and the dangerous waters around Cape Horn.

And you can see examples of the beautifully crafted equipment of the era, including a sextant, a theodolite and the type of chemistry kit used to test geological samples.

Compared to these chunky brass instruments, the Beagle 2 is a model of miniaturisation. It carries a cut-down mass spectrometer and microscope so it can function as a tiny, self-sufficient laboratory, with the whole craft weighing less than 68kg. Its miniature rock-drill was co-designed by a dentist.

Everything that's fitted into the spacecraft seems to have two main priorities, being small enough and tough enough. Maybe it's because we've grown up with the impression that space equipment should be gigantic, but it's still a surprise to see a spaceship that would fit into a car boot with plenty of room to spare. It should survive the extreme night-time cold on Mars for about six months.

Its landing on Mars will be cushioned by airbags, which will fall away before the craft unpacks itself, like a flower opening, with the "petals" acting as solar panels that will charge the craft's batteries.

A small digging device will bring up samples, which will be analysed, with the results transmitted back to Earth. In particular, the Beagle 2 is looking for any materials that could suggest organic life.

Charles Darwin's recording equipment - a notebook containing his scribbled observations - is also on show. He did not publish his revolutionary findings until 1859, when The Origin of Species appeared. You can see Darwin's own copy of the finished book, with the handwritten corrections he made for the second edition.

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.

Tel: 0870 780 4265; Admission free

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