Later this year a tiny space probe, Britain's first interplanetary spacecraft, will travel 35 million miles in space to land on Mars. Named after Charles Darwin's ship, Beagle 2 has been built by a team led by Colin Pillinger, Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Open University, who will explain the background to this remarkable achievement in a public lecture called Searching for Life on Mars - Beagle 2, as part of Cambridge Science Festival.

The talk, which is free and recommended for ages 14 plus, will take place in the Babbage Lecture Theatre on Cambridge University's New Museums Site tonight (Thursday 20 March) at 7.30pm.

In his lecture, Professor Pillinger will describe the challenges in funding, designing and manufacturing a probe that weighs just 30kg. Described as a miniature chemistry laboratory, the probe will analyse and collect samples from the surface of Mars.

This means that Beagle 2 has a good chance of being the first probe to discover whether life has ever existed on Mars.

Much of the £30 million needed to fund the Beagle 2 project has been raised by Professor Pillinger, whose efforts included arranging displays at the Chelsea Flower Show and giving talks to the royal family.

He has been helped by the band Blur who wrote the music that the probe will use as its signature tune. Optical and analytical equipment will be calibrated on landing using a spot painting designed by the artist Damien Hirst.

The probe will ride piggyback on the European Space Agency's Mars Express satellite, which will be taken into space by a Russian rocket launched from Kazakhstan. It will take seven months for the satellite to enter the orbit of Mars. The main satellite will circle the planet but the Beagle 2 probe will break away to thrust through the thin Martian atmosphere at 14,000 mph.

As the probe approaches the surface of Mars, its speed will be reduced by a parachute and huge gas balloons will inflate to ensure a gentle landing.

Professor Pillinger, who started his career by studying some of the samples of moon rock brought back by Apollo astronauts and later led his own research group at Cambridge University, promises to be an inspiring lecturer.

His fund-raising campaign has required him to make complex ideas accessible to everyone. "What comes across when Colin Pillinger speaks is his huge enthusiasm for the project. He brings it alive in an entertaining way," says Dr Lynne Harrison from the Institute of Continuing Education who has been responsible for organising the lecture.

For more information on Cambridge Science Festival phone 01223 766766 or go to

Image: All rights reserved Beagle 2

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