With their boldest space mission likely to have crashed on Mars or burned up in its atmosphere, cash-starved British scientists are wondering when — or if — they will be able to reach for the stars so daringly again. The loss of the saucer-shaped Beagle 2 probe, missing since Christmas Day when it was supposed to touch down on the Red Planet, was a huge blow for Britain's space program, struggling for cash unlike scientists in France and Germany.
Efforts to contact Beagle 2, using the European Mars Express orbiter, were unsuccessful on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Beagle scientists say there's still a chance of contacting the lander, but that chance is becoming increasingly slim.
As if to emphasize the yawning gap between big and little players in space, President Bush plans to announce a major space policy, including sending Americans back to the moon and ultimately to Mars.
NASA's own Martian robot explorer this week transmitted stunning pictures of the planet, striking in their detail. "Clearly the Beagle loss is a bitter setback, and success would have given U.K. space science a big boost, psychologically and probably financially too," said Dave Hall, director of science at the British National Space Center.
"Of course it's especially worrying that our budgets are falling compared to those of some European countries. ... A 'Beagle 3' project is only a long shot," he said.
While Britain boasts a proud history of groundbreaking planetary science, it never really entered the space race, instead choosing to trim budgets and focus on developing technologies.
The British space center saw its budget plunge from 201 million pounds ($368 million) in 1996-97 to only 160 million pounds in 2002-03 — less than a fifth of what France and Germany pour into space.
By comparison, NASA's total budget for 2004 is estimated at $15.5 billion, with $7.6 billion of that going to space science.
That's what made the all-British Beagle 2 project, a probe designed to look for evidence of life on Mars that piggybacked on Mars Express, so unusual.
"With the loss of Beagle I'm very worried about our space program," said Richard Taylor of the British Interplanetary Society, founded in 1933 to promote interest in space.
"If it succeeded, it would have been an immense boost for all of us and would have made the space business much more attractive. I'm hoping there'll be a Beagle 3 but I'm not overly optimistic," he added.
Projects to look forward to
Scientists have several, admittedly less glamorous, projects to look forward to.
Among them is the European Space Agency's Rosetta program, a comet-chasing project scheduled to be launched in February that has strong British involvement.
But an adventure on the scale of Beagle 2 may have to wait until at least 2009 when ESA is tentatively scheduled to send a rover to Mars as part of its Aurora project. The Beagle has put British industry and science in an excellent position to take a leading role if Aurora does happen, Hall said.