As people like Elon Musk and NASA look to Mars, it can seem like they’re doing all the work themselves.

But a team of British scientists almost got there first – and with a fraction of the budget.

The £ 42million Beagle 2 was a one-of-a-kind Martian lander robot that was designed on the back of a beer mat and assembled in a garage by eccentric planetary scientist Dr. Colin Pillinger.

Named after Charles Darwin’s ship the Beagle, the £ 42million Beagle 2 had one mission: to scan the surface of Mars for alien life.

On Christmas Day 2003, the Beagle 2 finally reached Mars.

The Beagle 2 contained many powerful sensors in a small box that could scan Martian soil for alien life.

It immediately crashed into a large crater, tried unsuccessfully to send a Blur song back to Earth, and then got lost for almost 12 years.

That is to say until its rediscovery by the US space agency NASA in 2015.

So how did Britain’s first major contribution to the 21st century space race turn out so badly?

And what can Beagle 2 teach us about life on Mars?

“Designed on the back of a coaster”: how the Beagle 2 was built

Professor Colin Pillinger, leader of the British team behind the Beagle 2 mission to Mars, answers questions at a press conference in London on January 4, 2004. On the same day, the NASA, the Spirit lander, broadcast remarkable images of the dark Martian surface to scientists on Earth after it landed around 4:35 GMT on Sunday morning.  Pillinger and his team are still trying to make contact with their Beagle 2 lander which was due to land on the Red Planet on Christmas Day.  REUTERS / David Bebber
Dr Colin Pillinger – the mastermind behind the Beagle 2

With a mutton chop beard and thirty acres of farmland under his belt, Dr Pillinger seemed like an unlikely candidate to bring the UK to Mars with the Beagle 2.

Underneath it all, however, he was a brilliant scientist and professor of planetary science who worked at Cambridge and the Open University.

His dream: to find extraterrestrial life on Mars.

Like all great works, the initial designs of the Beagle 2 were sketched on the back of a coaster in a “bar in Toulouse”. The end product was even assembled in what Pillinger called “a garage”.

The Beagle 2 lander was about two meters wide and was packed with kits that would allow it to burrow beneath the Martian surface and use special sensors to scan the ground for signs of life.

Best of all, it was incredibly compact, which meant it was a relatively affordable and efficient design for a Martian lander probe.

The “mad professor” who wanted to “go to Mars cheaply”

The Beagle 2 rover was small, but powerful (Photo: Colin Dillinger)
The Beagle 2 rover was small, but powerful (Photo: Colin Dillinger)

Dr Pillinger was not just a great scientist. He was a master of advertising, known for his rambling football references on radio and television.

After successfully convincing the European Space Agency to add a lander to its Mars Express mission, Dr Pillinger had a helping hand. artists.

His colleagues at the time described him as “that mad professor who wants to go to Mars on a shoestring” – if by small they meant the £ 42million it would end up costing the UK taxpayer. However, the merits of the project eventually won their support.

When he wanted to show his idea to the press, he stuck a replica of the lander on the back of a supermarket cart and rolled it into a university parking lot.

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Dr Pillinger even convinced two members of the Blur group, Dave Rowntree and Alex James, to join us. The group released a song, “Beagle 2,” to be sent back to Earth when the spacecraft landed safely on Mars.

According to mission director Professor Mark Sims, there’s a good chance Lander played the song successfully despite the crash, making it the first track to be played on Mars.

Eventually, the UK government agreed to pay £ 22million to fund the mission, alongside Open University and the European Space Agency.

“The Christmas that never came

An undated photograph shows a model of the Beagle 2 Lander craft at Sandy Quarry in Bedfordshire, southern England.  The British open umbrella-sized Beagle 2 spacecraft began the final leg of its mission to find life on Mars on December 19 by successfully freeing itself from the Mars Express mothership that transported it to 100 million kilometers from Earth.  EDITORIAL USE ONLY.  MUST NOT BE USED IN A DEFAMATORY MANNER IN RELATION TO THE PROJECT OR COLLABORATORS ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BEAGLE 2 WWW.BEAGLE2.COM REUTERS / HO
What the Beagle 2 looked like in a Bedfordshire quarry

The Beagle 2 had no problem reaching its destination, thanks to ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter, which took it on a relatively smooth six-month jaunt to the Red Planet.

However, as Mars Express dropped the Beagle 2 on its target, a gigantic crater called Isidis Planitia, mysterious problems occurred. The lander was missing for a few days and could not be contacted.

Dr Pillinger was questioned heavily by the press at the time. He used some of his favorite football analogies to reassure people.

“We have driven 250 million kilometers, we have a draw in the first leg,” he said as the Beagle 2 flew to Mars.

“We are playing the second leg on Christmas Day.”

But on Christmas Day, the Beagle 2 never returned the Blur song as expected.

Dr Pillinger was upset. According to his family, he spent all Christmas sulking, that Christmas that never was.

Eventually, he told reporters: “I’m afraid that’s the usual English scenario – we’re in extra time.”

He added: “Ultimately there is a point where you can say we have no idea where this spaceship is.”

The rediscovery of Beagle 2

Artist's impression of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft 2005 Image distributed by NASA of an artist's impression of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.  The spacecraft is due for launch in two days and has the best chance of finding out what happened to Beagle 2, the British probe lost on Mars.  Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is the largest spacecraft ever sent to the Red Planet.  The size of a minibus and weighing 2,180 kg, it is equipped with a suite of powerful instruments.  See the PA SCIENCE spacecraft.  PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.  Photo credit should read: JPL / NASA / PA
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which attempted to find the Beagle 2

Neither NASA nor ESA managed to make contact with the Beagle 2, and Dr. Pillinger tragically died of MS without fulfilling his dream. The Beagle 2 was declared “lost” in February 2004.

However, in 2014, NASA picked up strange signals on the Martian surface. Eleven years after his forced landing and just a few months after Dr Pillinger’s death, they found Beagle 2.

The pictures suggest that Beagle 2 failed at the last hurdle. Three of its four solar panels opened, but its communication tools failed. The analysis suggested that he even gathered a lot of data, but was never able to send it back to Earth.

Undated photo released by the British Space Agency of the Beagle 2 probe, which disappeared as it approached Mars in search of alien life, on the surface of the Red Planet.  PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.  Issue date: Friday, January 16, 2015. The Beagle 2 probe has not been seen or heard since December 2003 and was presumed destroyed.  But UK Space Agency chief executive David Parker said today that high-resolution images taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft showed it had successfully landed 12 years ago.  See the story of PA SCIENCE Beagle.  Photo credit should read: UK Space Agency / PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This document photo may only be used for editorial reporting purposes for contemporary illustration of events, things or people in the image or the facts mentioned in the legend.  Reuse of image may require additional permission from the copyright holder.
Photographs taken by NASA when it discovered the wreckage of the Beagle 2

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Mark Sims told the BBC: “We’ve come together. We’ve been successful in so many things. It’s such a shame the communications didn’t work and we didn’t get the science back.”

While Beagle 2 didn’t quite cut the mustard, it taught space boffs about the many dangers of landing on Mars and taught us all to never give up.