UK’s Bridget to explore Mars

Britain announced today that it will lead a new assault on Mars using a rover called Bridget. They hope to find martian life using the intelligent robot buggy nicknamed after screen legend Brigitte Bardot.

The Government revealed major funding for a European mission called ExoMars will launch in 2011 and is expected to cost between 600 million and 800 million euros.

Britain pledged £1.7 million pounds towards research and development for the follow-up to the ill-fated Beagle 2 which is believed to have crashed on the Red Planet on Christmas Day, 2003.

Professor John Zarnecki told a news conference in London that there was no guarantee which UK contributions would be selected. But he added: “Are we confident? You bet we are!”

Professor Zarnecki, of the Open University, added: “The UK is actively preparing to go to Mars. Today’s announcement will allow us to play a major role in ExoMars.”

Space scientists at EADS Astrium, Stevenage, are already testing a prototype of Bridget, the size of a Smart car, which will crawl over rocks and tackle 30 degree slopes on Mars. Dr Mike Healy of EADS Astrium said: “She has a tighter turning circle than Peter Crouch.”

Yesterday the slow-crawling, six-wheeled buggy showed itself off in London’s Carlton Terrace where the only obstacles were double yellow lines and traffic wardens.

The mastermind behind the Beagle 2 mission, Professor Colin Pillinger, is not currently involved with ExoMars but Prof Zarnecki said: “We hope and expect that he will be.”

Dr Mark Sims, of the University of Leicester, who was actively involved with Beagle 2, said: “We would not be able to do this without having done Beagle.”

After launch on a Soyuz or Ariane rocket, ExoMars will take the long route to Mars with a two-year journey through the solar system. It is making its extended journey to avoid the planet’s dust storm season. Missions to Mars usually get there in around six or seven months.

While a telecoms satellite goes into orbit around the red planet, the rover will land using parachutes plus a new form of airbags that instantly deflate rather than bounce.

Bridget will have camera eyes that can detect interesting rocks hundreds of metres away and zoom in on them. The buggy will drive to special features and can also drill up to two metres down to look for signs of life. She was recently tested on Mars-like terrain on Tenerife.

Leicester scientists led by Dr Sims are developing a “pregnancy test” kit for the mission. Called the Life Marker Chip, it will look for molecules linked with extinct or existing life on Mars. The technology is expected to have uses beyond space such as aiding forensic analysis at crime scenes.

Another experiment being built at Imperial College London is a microseismometer the size of a thumbnail that will detect any Marsquakes plus any water that may lie underground.

Britain is the second biggest contributor, after Italy, to Europe’s Aurora programme to explore the solar system, having pledged £75 million last year.

The UK cash announced yesterday will be spent on planning nine aspects of the unmanned mission. 1, Bridget the rover; 2, the Life Marker Chip that will search for life; 3, a panoramic camera to map the planet in 3D; 4, an X-ray diffractometer to study the martian geology; 5, the miniature seismometer to search for Marsquakes and detect any underground water; 6, an atmospheric experiment package to study the planet’s weather; 7, a spectrometer to look at radiation that reaches Mars’ surface; 8, technology to land the spacecraft safely on the planet; and 9, designing the craft’s parachute system.

It is hoped the mission will help pave the way for eventual manned missions to the red planet.

You may be wondering why the buggy is nicknamed Bridget. Engineering jargon calls prototypes like Bridget a “Breadboard”. That get shortened to “BB” – just like Brigitte Bardot.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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