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The case for life on the Red Planet

Beagle scientist on a discovery that launched a mission to Mars

By Colin Pillinger for CNN

Colin Pillinger
Pillinger: "In 1997 the idea of sending a robot laboratory to Mars was born."
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(CNN) -- My life changed dramatically on August 6, 1996, when a group of NASA scientists claimed to have found a fossil in a meteorite from Mars.

I had been involved in Martian meteorite research since the early 1980s, helping to show that these rocks did in fact come from the Red Planet.

The research my group carried out had suggested that all the necessary ingredients for life to exist on Mars were present. We also had shown that organic material, a chemical fossil, could be found associated with martian minerals deposited from water.

On Earth organic matter in sedimentary minerals is the evidence which indicates that life started four billion years ago.

I could not, however, put my hand on my heart and say we'd found life on a second planet in the solar system. We could have been studying terrestrial contamination in the meteorites.

However, we realized that if we could repeat the experiments, carried out here on Earth on meteorites in situ on Mars and get the same answers, then that could make a fantastic discovery. In 1997 the idea of sending a robot laboratory to Mars was born.

It wasn't easy to persuade anyone to provide the funds but fellow enthusiasts from the British Space Industry and other academics joined in and together we built a spacecraft named Beagle 2 after HMS Beagle, the ship which took Charles Darwin around the world on a voyage which led to our understanding of how life evolved on Earth.

It seemed an apt name seeing as how we were trying to find out if life existed somewhere else in the Universe.

We didn't succeed. We got to Mars but Beagle 2 refused to answer our radio calls after we sent it rushing towards the surface of Mars on Christmas Day 2003.

We haven't given up however. The science is as compelling as ever and new discoveries of major features due to water on Mars suggest it is even more likely now that life exists or existed there.

Beagle 2 is the only spacecraft yet designed with instruments to address the question, "Are we alone?" We would very much like to have another go at providing an answer.

-- Colin Pillinger is professor of Planetary Sciences at the Open University and headed the Beagle 2 mission to Mars.

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