Posted by: Rob Viens | February 24, 2012

Darwin in Space

February 24th was another slow day on the Beagle with no diary entry from Darwin. So a little “flight of fancy” today…

I think I mentioned in one of my first posts that Darwin’s voyage in the 1830’s was akin to a trip to Mars today – a very long and dangerous trip, to a “new world” that had the potential to make a scientist’s career. I can image a young Darwin today signing up for the first mission to Mars. As it turns out, Darwin’s legacy has journeyed beyond the Earth and lives on in the names of at least two geographic features on the moon and two spacecraft.

Darwin Crater and Rimae Darwin:
On the southeastern face of the moon, Darwin lives on, immortalized in lunar geography. Darwin Crater is a 122 km impact feature surrounded by several smaller satellite craters (some that formed when material ejected from the main impact fell back to the ground). It’s age is not reported, though it likely goes back to the “heavy bombardment period” some 4 billion years ago. The crater is cut but a series of younger rilles called Rimae Darwin. Rilles on the moon have several different origins, but the rilles of Rimae Darwin probably represent ancient faults.

Ironically, though probably by design, the crater to the south of Darwin is called Lamark – after the scientist whose hypothesis of species formation Darwin’s (rightfully) replaced.

Darwin Crater and Rimae Darwin (from the NASA):
Darwin Crater

Beagle 2:
In June 2003, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched an interplanetary spacecraft called Mars Express which carried a landing craft called the Beagle 2. The Beagle 2 was named (not surprisingly) after the HMS Beagle – it was meant to symbolize a new voyage of discovery to a new planet. In this case, as planet that may have harbored life in the past. Just imagine – everything we know about life (including how species form) is based on one example – Earth. What could we learn with two examples? What would Darwin have thought? I know without a doubt that we would never look at life the same way again.

Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. The Beagle 2 lost contact after separating from Mars Express in December 2003 (it was scheduled to land on Christmas day). After an exhaustive search that lasted several months , and included the resources of NASA as well as the ESA, the Beagle 2 was declared lost. It is likely that it “bounced” off the atmosphere or crash landed on the surface (for future explorers to find). The good news – Mars Express continues to orbit the planet and send back lots of good scientific data.

Beagle 2 lander and one of the proposed Darwin telescope satellites (from the ESA):
Beagle 2 and Darwin Mission ESA

Darwin Mission:
Alas, a mission that never made it off the ground, the ESA’s Darwin Mission was planned to consist of a series of “planet finding” spacecraft which would be arranged in an array – a central communication satellite surrounded by 3 or more telescope satellites. By spreading out the satellites into an array, astronomers could treat them like one very large telescope. It was proposed that they be placed in a stable location (a Lagrange Point, L2 to be specific) about 1.5 million miles from the Earth and aimed at nearby stars. Darwin’s mission – to seek out Earth-like (small & rocky) planets and look for signs of life by analyzing the gases in their atmospheres. (Oxygen, for example, would not remain in high quantities in our atmosphere if life didn’t keep replenishing it.)

To the regret of many, the mission ended on the planning table – most likely the result of lack of funding. But wouldn’t it have been cool if the Darwin Mission had been the first to detect extraterrestrial life? (RJV)


  1. Let’s bring Chuck back to life in 2012. Let’s talk about the state of science in the 21st century and let’s tell him that his theory of evolution by natural selection stands as one of the most significant accomplishments in the history of civilization. Oh yeah, Chuck, your fears of rocking the Establishment were well founded and still fracture much of society today.

    And let’s tell him about the Darwin Crater and the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2…

    Does Chuck realize that his epic journey has 4.6 years to go? Us instructors get used to measuring time in 11-week quarters and we get to start fresh again. How many of us have a five-year plan, aside from paying the mortgage and getting the children raised?

  2. […] ago I discussed the lunar features and spacecraft that were named for Darwin and the Beagle  (See Darwin in Space I). Since then I have uncovered two more solar system landmarks that bear Darwin’s name. (In […]

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