Mars probe hailed as triumph for U.K. technology

The British-built Mars probe Beagle 2 has successfully separated from its 'mothership' on the final leg of its mission to search for signs of life on the red planet.

The British-built Mars probe Beagle 2 has successfully separated from its 'mothership' on the final leg of its mission to search for signs of life on the red planet.

The first stage of Beagle's landing was announced just after 11.10 GMT on Friday and has been hailed as a triumph for U.K. technology and science. The probe will now travel to Mars over the next five days before its planned landing date in the early hours of Christmas day.

The landing will utilise state-of-the-art parachute technology to slow the probe down to just from just under the speed of sound to 35mph, and if everything goes well, a signal will be sent back to earth in the form of musical tune recorded by British rock band Blur.

Commenting on the eagerly awaited news of the successful split, Beagle 2's colourful creator Colin Pillinger said: "We were out to play a two-leg match and both of them were away, a long way away from Earth. We've travelled 250 million miles and we've got a one-nil result in the first leg."

Responding to earlier reports that a dust storm on the planet's surface could endanger an already extremely risky mission, Pillinger said that according to the latest information the storm was "several thousand kilometres" from Beagle's planned landing site and didn't represent much of a danger.

As Beagle was only included as an afterthought to the original Mars Express Mission, engineers behind the probe had unprecedented weight restrictions imposed on them, forcing them to innovate in the probe's design.

Only slightly larger than an average bicycle wheel at one metre in diameter and 0.8 metre deep, the probe runs off a 60W power source but still manages to house drilling equipment and a compact mass spectrometer.

Two U.S. probes are also set to land on the Mars around the same time as Beagle, but unlike the U.K. probe, which will search for actual signs of life, the NASA machines will investigate if conditions are right to support life.

The majority of the software for the project was provided by U.K.-based IT consultancy Logica CMG, including programs that support the probe's communication with Earth.The software able to detect and fix any errors in the computer's memory, which may be caused by radiation, according to Logica.

The news of the successful split was made before an audience of dignitaries at London's Royal Geographic Society that included the Duke of York, Science Minister Lord Sainsbury and "Sky at Night" presenter Sir Patrick Moore.

"What we are seeing here today is the best of British engineering and science," said Lord Sainsbury, who recently cited Beagle 2 as a benchmark for a new three-year U.K. space strategy, which includes developing innovative space technologies and systems. According to the Department of Trade and Industry, Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology is forecast to grow by 85 percent from 2001 to 2007.

ZDNet U.K.'s Andrew Donoghue reported from London.