16 January 2015
Beagle 2 was conceived by Professor Colin Pillinger, a planetary scientist at the Open University, with the intention of establishing whether there was life on Mars. Part of the European Space Agency's 2003 'Mars Express' mission, it was successfully launched on 2nd June 2003, and was to be the first space lander since the two Mars Viking probes of the 1970s. Beagle 2 was supposed to touch down on Christmas Day in 2003, but the craft was never heard from and presumed destroyed. Today, the ESA confirmed that the lander has been spotted by scientists operating NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, just 6km from its original touchdown site. This would make Beagle 2 the first British and European spacecraft to successfully land on Mars.
On the invitation of Pillinger, Hirst's iconic spots were used as a special instrument calibration chart on board the spacecraft. Hirst stated at the time: "The spot painting lends itself to this project and as an artist all the things you make you want to be useful on some level." The spots were applied with pigment that could withstand the rigours of space flight. The test card was to be used as a reference chart to allow scientists back on Earth to calibrate the probe's equipment. It was joined by a track from Blur which was to be beamed back from the probe in 2003 to tell Professor Pillinger's team that Beagle had landed safely.
On the news that Beagle 2 has hopefully been detected, Hirst stated: "This is fantastic news! I can't believe Beagle 2 has been out there all this time and I have a painting on Mars! It's amazing! It makes me think that Colin must be looking down on us smiling and still have a hand in it."
The news comes after the death of Professor Colin Pillinger last May, at the age of 70. His daughter Shusanah said: "This shows such an immense success and not forgetting all the other things that went on in the background of Beagle 2, all the promotion of science, all of the inspiration to children. He would love that this is in the news again. He would love that this could inspire that next generation to do Beagle 3."
Dr David Baker, author of the Haynes Mars Rover Manual and editor of the British Interplanetary Society magazine Spaceflight, said: "The ambitious work of Prof Colin Pillinger and the Open University to deliver this project in such a short timeframe totally transformed the capabilities of the ESA and helped it to move from a highly bureaucratic organisation which worked in the shadow of Nasa into one which is highly progressive and able to rival its bigger brother across the Atlantic. That is the true legacy of Beagle 2 and the wonderful work of Prof Colin Pillinger, a cattle farmer who has transformed the UK and Europe's capabilities in space."