Beagle2 to probe Europe's strength in robot race against US, Japan
NARA, Japan (AFP) May 29, 2003
Europe's landmark space mission set to lift off for Mars next week will be a litmus test of its strength in robotic technology in rivalry with US and Japanese competitors, according to a senior computer engineer for the project.

British researcher Dr. Dave Barnes represented the members of the Beagle2 project at the 7th International Symposium on Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation in Space, which took place here, in Japan's ancient capital last week.

The three-day conference drew more than 100 scientists and researchers from 10 countries and major space agencies led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), European Space Agency (ESA) and National Space Development Agency of Japan (NADSA).

The countdown has begun for the launch of the unmanned Mars Express spacecraft carrying the Beagle2 lander, on June 2 from Baikonur in Kazakhstan by a Soyuz-Fregat rocket.

The craft will embark on a 400-million kilometre (428-million-mile) journey through space and is scheduled to release Beagle2 -- named after evolutionist Charles Darwin's ship -- onto the surface of Mars on Christmas Day this year.

"It's going to be a very historic time for the UK," and Europe as it will be the ESA's first solo mission to another planet, said Barnes, a senior lecturer at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Wales.

The 30-kilogramme (66-pound) clam-shaped probe, equipped with high-tech robotic arms, will investigate geological features and the atmosphere for the presence of water -- crucial evidence of life on the Red Planet.

"This mission will certainly probe levels of our robotic technology," Barnes told AFP after outlining the mission during the "Robots in Space" conference.

Barnes, in charge of developing the control system for the probe's robotic arms, said the mission would provide European countries with the opportunity to assess whether their robotic technology is capable of competing with that of the Japanese and Americans.

"In certain areas we have a lot of catching up to do, and other areas we are holding our own," the British computer engineer said.

"Areas such as small software, I think, that's our strength," he said.

"The Germans have had strength in engineering. The French are also involved in flying robot activity. We are international competitors."

The British-built Beagle2, reportedly developed on a shoestring budget -- in space exploration terms -- of 35 million pounds (57.3 million US dollars), will release a crawling mole to gather subsurface soil samples and return them to its on-board analytical laboratory.

The probe, which is powered by a five solar batteries, will send back the results of the analysis as well as photographs of the surface taken with panoramic cameras.

Barnes' team is particularly keen to see how the probe stands up to the rigours of the mission.

"My research is looking at the issues of autonomous robots for planetary exploration," Barnes said.

"I am particularly interested in robot survivability and longevity," he said.

"What we need to do is to be able to send these robots off a planet such as Mars, and they need to operate by themselves for an extended period of several years.

"Currently we don't have the know-how for doing that, and really my involvement in Beagle 2 is to give me my first access to a real arm on a real mission gathering data," he said.