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A tale of two Beagles

Updated Monday, 5th October 2009

Colin Pillinger, Beagle2 project leader, talks about the mission to land a spacecraft on Mars and the search for HMS Beagle, the ship that took Darwin to South America.

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Graphic: A Tale of Two Beagles: At sea and in space


Graphic: The Search for HMS Beagle

Colin Pillinger:

HMS Beagle is one of the iconic ships of Britain’s maritime history. If you are asked to name ships, any five you came up with would have Beagle in it.

And therefore it's something which as far as I'm concerned ought to be found and preserved as an inspiration to future generations as to what was achieved on basically very, very little resources.

Graphic: Colin Pillinger was leader of the Beagle 2 project: to land a spacecraft on Mars. He is also involved in the search for HMS Beagle, the ship that took Darwin on his famous journey.

Colin Pillinger: When we started this it was because we sort of thought there was this parallel with Beagle 2, and we thought well, we ought to follow up what happened to it.

Judith my wife was the person who named Beagle 2 after Darwin’s ship. She did some research and came up with the fact that it had been sold, first of all given to the Coast Guard, and then when the Coast Guard grew tired of it they sold it for scrap and she found the advertisements in the newspaper, when it sold and saying where it was, and of course then we went there and we found there was a place on the shore that actually fitted Beagle, and we geophysically surveyed the place and showed that this is a genuine sort of dock that was made, all the right proportions, and the next stage can only be, let's try and excavate some of it, and of course I'm involved with genuine archaeologists to do this, I’m not going down there with a spade and bucket, I assure you.

Graphic: The Ship and The Spacecraft

Colin Pillinger: HMS Beaglewas a very adventurous mission. It was an expedition, you know, it was there to pathfinder something which might lead to greater things. It had to discover, you know, the way round South America in order to get to the, you know, the eastern parts of the world, which was a …. and we were trying to explore Mars and, therefore, it was the analogy between the ship and the spacecraft as opposed to the analogy between the science of the two missions, because Darwin didn’t set out to discover life, we did. Darwin actually ended up finding out how life evolved, which in a way was what we were trying to do with Beagle 2. We were trying to see whether life evolved on another body in the Solar System which was a pretty fundamental question to attack.

We wanted to find out whether life was different somewhere else, and that's a straight comparison with what HMS Beagle ended up doing. It wasn’t what it started out to do but it was what it ended up doing.

Darwin showed that life on Earth developed in different ways, in different places, because those places were isolated from each other at that time when people didn’t trek round the world. We were actually going to go to a place which was totally separated from Earth, and therefore if we were to find life it must almost certainly have evolved differently.

The key to Darwin’s discoveries was that he had an example of life that he knew about in Europe and an example of life far, far away. He was able to show well this must have actually gone through a process entirely differently.

So if we’d found life on Mars, we’d have had two lives to compare and contrast. It would have taught us an immense amount about how life began and developed

If we could find out that there was another life, that life on Earth wasn’t unique then you'd make this fantastic leap to find out that we aren’t alone in the universe. And that is a big, big, big discovery.






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