Dr Dean Harris – Beagle 2: how the UK became the third nation to land on Mars

In the early 21st century, a group of British adventurers, scientists, engineers and explorers launched a mission to Mars. The mission was called Beagle 2 and was led by the late Professor Colin Pillinger. The mission attempted to answer one of the most profound questions asked by humanity (and David Bowie): Is there life on Mars? This talk presents the extraordinary and entertaining story of Beagle 2, presented by a mission insider. We will open with sci-fi Dreams of a Red planet that inspired Colin as a boy. 

Beagle was expected to land in 2003, but fell silent. Every Christmas since then, I’ve wondered what happened to the plucky little lander. We had given up all hope and assumed it had crashed into the surface or burnt up in the atmosphere. A core of enthusiasts continued the hunt for Beagle 2 and, 11 years later, it was found. Beagle 2 had not crash landed and recent analysis suggests that it may still be operating today. Sound crazy? The NASA rover that landed in the same year is still trundling around the surface. We will tell the amazing story of how the UK became the third nation in history to land on Mars with the help of a group of Christmas-jumper-wearing-boffins, led by a mutton-chop wearing farmer, who designed a probe on the back of a beer mat and knocked it up in a shed. Finally, we will look into the future history of Mars and ask the question – Will we be the Martians?

Dean started his career working on the British-built Beagle 2 Mars at Leicester University. Although it was declared lost, 11 years later the craft was found to have made it in one piece to the Martian surface and most probably conducted some science. It was immediately declared the winner of the interplanetary hide and seek competition 2004-2015. Dean received the Sir Arthur Clarke group achievement award in 2015, as part of the Beagle 2 team. Following Beagle 2, he worked on the development of a number of space missions. Many of them remain on paper (eg Venus balloons, V2-style penetrators for Mars), but there are a few that will actually launch, including the Bepi Colombo mission to Mercury and the ExoMars rover. He has also made a short science fiction film about Pluto, which was partially filmed at Jodrell Bank.

Dean’s career has taken him to some pretty wild places. He has used a NASA telescope on the top of a volcano in Hawaii to observe the aurora on Saturn, used a facility in Harwell that is 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, and spent a stressful time as a guardian of NASA stardust samples from Houston to Leicester. He took early retirement as an armchair astronaut and now works in the Medical Sciences, looking after Earthlings instead. 

In his spare time, Dean enjoys reading science fiction (hard not soft), trolling conspiracy theorists on the internet and generally not to taking life too seriously.

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