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Lost Beagle 2 Found On Red Planet's Surface

Jan 16, 2015 12:19 PM EST
beagle 2
(Photo : ESA/Denman productions) An artist's impression of Beagle 2 lande, had it been fully deployed. Tragically, this never occured. More than a decade later, the lost but intact craft was finally found.

One of Mars exploration's greatest failures, the loss of the UK's Beagle 2, may not have been such a disaster after all. A set of photographs captured from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows that the craft had spotted the Beagle, and the Mars lander appears to be in good shape. So what went wrong?

"Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2," Mark Sims of the University of Leicester admitted in a recent statement.

He was a key member of the Beagle 2 mission team, and served as a mission manager - meaning he spent Dec. 25, 2003 monitoring the lander's decent, until suddenly they lost all contact with the craft. The theory was that somehow the telemetry had been wrong, and the Beagle 2 had crashed into the Red Planet's surface far faster than expected. However, no wreckage was ever found.

"My Christmas Day in 2003 alongside many others who worked on Beagle 2 was ruined by the disappointment of not receiving data from the surface of Mars," Sims added. "To be frank I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The [MRO] images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars."

NASA released the pictures to the public Friday, showing evidence that the craft had in fact not crash landed, and was a mere three miles (5km) from its intended landing zone. It was practically a bullseye.

Tragically, this revelation occurred less than a year after the death of the probe's principal investigator, Colin Pillinger. The Royal Society scientific institution announced an award in commemoration of Pillinger last November.

His wife and fellow Beagle team scientist Judith Pillinger told the BBC on Friday that the late researcher always liked to use fútbol (or "soccer" for some) analogies in his lectures.

"No doubt he would have compared Beagle 2 landing on Mars, but being unable to communicate, to having 'hit the crossbar' rather than missing the goal completely," she said.

But just what was it that prevented the lander from scoring a true goal?

A set of three observations taken with the MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera shows that Beagle 2 was not only intact, but it is even partially deployed on the Martian surface, with its pilot/drogue chute still attached and main parachute close by. (Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: NASA / MRO - HiRISE]

Unfortunately, according to Sims, without the craft fully deployed and its mounted solar panel "petals" unfurled, the Beagle's communication antenna remained hidden, unable to reach out to mission control back on Earth. Eventually the primary battery of the craft would have died, and much like was the case with the European Space Agency's (ESA) Philae lander - which historically bounced on a comet back in November - the Beagle 2 would have had no way to recharge with its solar cells out of the Sun.

"The failure cause is pure speculation, but it could have been, and probably was, down to sheer bad luck - a heavy bounce perhaps distorting the structure as clearances on solar panel deployment weren't big; or a punctured and slowly leaking airbag not separating sufficiently from the lander, causing a hang-up in deployment," Sims went on.

Still, the mission manager added, he's delighted to finally know the true fate of the Beagle 2.

"I can imagine the sense of closure that the Beagle 2 team must feel," Richard Zurek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory added. Zurek is currently a scientist for the MRO and had once been a part of the team that searched for the agency's still missing 1998 Mars Polar Lander.

"MRO has helped find safe landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity and Phoenix missions and has searched for missing craft to learn what may have gone wrong," he explained. "It's an extremely difficult task, as the craft are small and the search areas are vast. It takes the best camera we have in Mars orbit and work by dedicated individuals to be successful at this."

However, this time, they were successful, even with the tiny 7-foot-wide Beagle 2 right at the limit of the HiRISE's detection capabilities - a feat that provides some peace-of-mind at last for a lot of scientists.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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