The Beagle Voyages Again
||Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Brad Harrub, Ph.D.
While the grinch may be green, he was not the green man of interest on Christmas Day 2003. The “little green man” in the news on this particular Christmas comes from the distant planet of Mars. Over the next month, the media will delight in inundating the public with stories about researchers combing the Martian surface, searching for signs of life. The volley began on Christmas morning. While many of us were fighting with cardboard boxes and the plethora of tools required for things that were labeled “some assembly required,” a group of scientists from Europe was awaiting word of the landing from the first of three space probes. The journey for the first probe began on June 2, 2003, when it was launched toward Mars. December 25 was to be the day this European spacecraft would land on the cold, distant planet. Two U.S. land rovers, the Spirit and Opportunity, are slated to reach the Martian surface on January 3 and 24 respectively, and will be making headlines in the coming days.
The European space probe was named after the HMS Beagle, the ship on which Charles Darwin traveled prior to writing his famous work, The Origin of Species. That ship set sail in 1831 for a desolate place known as Tiera del Fuego. While many have called that environment somewhat depressing, the surface of Mars definitely would prove even more so—as scientists are quickly discovering. Known as the Beagle 2, the lander was sent in search of signs for life—past, present, or future. Writing for Nature magazine’s on-line Web site, Philip Ball reported that the Beagle 2 was aimed at an “immense meteorite crater close to the Martian equator called Isidis Planitia” (2003). He noted that the surface there is “mostly hardened dust with a scattering of rocks—neither so dusty as to smother the lander, nor too rocky to present a danger for the touchdown” (2003). The probe is a small, conical pod about the size of a bicycle wheel.
In their pursuit to find life outside the Earth (and to discount a Creator), researchers are anxious to analyze the composition of the Martian surface. Many believe that just under the dry surface may be a frozen water layer—which all scientists agree is a prerequisite for life. As such, the Beagle 2 was equipped to dig below the Martian surface, in order to analyze the components therein. Ball observed: “When NASA’s Viking probes landed on Mars in the mid-1970s, they found a surface that was dry and apparently sterilized by ultraviolet rays from the Sun, dashing hopes that microbes might be thriving there. The Pathfinder lander mission of 1997 also failed to find any sign of life past or present” (2003). Aside from water, the probe also will look for things like the existence of carbonate minerals, and the occurrence of organic molecules.
If all had gone as scheduled, the Beagle 2 was to land on Christmas Day. After its large, gas-filled airbags detached and the parachutes were cut away, the solar panels were to be unfurled, allowing the lander to power itself up. The compactness of the probe did not allow it to have enough battery power to last into the night; thus, the solar panels were essential to its success. But as of late evening on December 28, no signals had been received. The European team will continue trying to make contact with the space probe throughout the oncoming days and weeks. Their best hope remains with the Mars Express—the spacecraft on which the Beagle 2 “hitchhiked,” and that currently is orbiting Mars. However, if that spacecraft fails to pick up a signal during the first week of January, the probe most likely will be considered lost.
Somewhere on the Martian surface sits an expensive space probe that is the result of millions of research dollars and years of advanced research. The Beagle 2 may prove to be somewhat of an embarrassment to evolutionists, who were hoping to find evidence of life on Mars in the distant past. But while this first one may turn out to be a dud, the onslaught from the media will continue, and reports will continue to arrive about the “potential” of life on Mars. We encourage you to be diligent in dissecting fact from fiction as “life on Mars” stories make the headlines. [NOTE: For assistance in separating fact from fiction in regard to claims about life on Mars, see: (1) Life on Mars?; (2) Mars Rock Update; (3) Life on Mars—The “Rest of the Story”; and (4) Life on Mars, or Miniscule Balls of Digested Matter? .
Ball, Philp (2003), “Fingers Crossed for Beagle 2,” Nature Science Update, [On-line], URL: http://www.nature.com/nsu/031222/031222-3.html.