The landing site of Beagle 2 on Mars, imaged by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera. Image credit: HIRISE/NASA/Leicester

Jan 16, 2015 The Nearly Beagle

Sen—Seeing today's pictures of a seemingly intact Beagle on the surface of Mars brought a lump to my throat. Viewing what seems to be visceral evidence that the probe at least got as far as trying to unfold its panels brings back the immense disappointment of its failure more than a decade ago. At the memorial gathering last year for the project's idiosyncratic lead, Colin Pillinger, we watched again as he stood in front of the world's media, awaiting news of signal acquisition that would never come.

There are those who weren't at all surprised by Beagle's failure. It's difficult now to remember quite how difficult the circumstances were; stymied by a continual search for funding and hence a need for publicity, and stuck on a timescale determined by the primary Mars Express mission, Beagle was a hitchhiker and a distraction. I've just finished reading JPL engineer Rob Manning's book about the Curiosity mission, in which he describes the long slow build up to the in retrospect inevitable decision to delay the rover's flight to Mars once the team realised they weren't ready.

The Beagle team weren't ready, but they couldn't delay their journey. Suspicion as to the cause of the mission's faliure has always centred on the parachute and airbags, both of which had significant failures in testing. There is horrifying footage of the one full test of the airbag system under Martian conditions which shows them inflating to bounce the lander gently onto the surface, and then almost instantly shredding. The team made changes to the design, but there wasn't time for a test—Beagle had to fly.

The Beagle team had further cause to regret not being in charge of their mission. Locked into a trajectory that was set the moment they left Earth, there was little that could be done when they were presented with an uncooperative Martian atmosphere, dustier and thus at a lower density than was ideal, there was little that could be done. No-one remembers or much cares now, but as Cassini-Huygens approached Saturn all was not well with the probe, but because Huygens was a high priority (and Cassini a highly capable spacecraft) release and hence the landing could be delayed while the problem was sorted out. In later years, Colin was to highlight this lack of control as a key problem with the Beagle mission—if you're going to send a lander, he said, you must have the flexibility to maximise its chances of touching down.

And so I'd always believed Beagle was in bits, smashed to smithereens on the unforgiving surface of the red planet. That had the advantage of a clean explanation—more time, more testing, and things might have been different. Yet there it is—parachute deployed and, if it got at least someway to unfolding, airbags at least unshredded. All of Beagle's 'petals' had to unfurl for it to communicate, and so it seems possible to me that something as simple as a misplaced rock could have prevented successful deployment.

There might be a measure of vindication for Colin and his team in this—so near, and yet so far. Following the mission's failure, he argued passionately for upping the ante, sending a fleet of Beagle like craft so that it would not matter if a few suffered from the odd mishap. Instead, Europe's next Mars mission, ExoMars (which incidentally includes an instrument or two with clear Beagle heritage) is an expensive one-shot, dependent on Russian technology to get to Mars. Let's hope we're not picking over its pieces in a few years' time.