How Beagle 2 should have looked, fully opened up on the surface of Mars. Something prevented at least one of the segments from opening. Image credit: Beagle 2

Jan 18, 2015 Celebrating two landings on distant worlds

Sen—Well, what a week that was! One that reminded us of two valiant attempts to land spacecraft on other worlds.

One, we already knew, had been a stunning success. But the other had seemed destined to remain forever a mystery.

It was ten years since Europe’s Huygens probe floated through the atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and settled on its surface.

But as celebrations were being prepared for that major achievement, the spotlight was suddenly switched to the British bid, a little more than a year earlier, to land on Mars.

Early in the last week, journalists were sent invitations summoning them to a special event on Friday at the prestigious Royal Society buildings in London. No clue was given to what would be announced other than it would be a briefing about Beagle 2, which we knew was missing, presumed crashed.

That was quite enough for all news outlets, including Sen, to speculate that the probe had been found. Seeing this, some space commentators queried whether information had been leaked or some embargo broken.

Of course, it was no such thing. There was no embargo and in fact no information of value had been provided to journalists in advance. I had made my own enquiries and received a polite no comment and a request to wait for the briefing.

Perhaps this illustrates a difference between scientists and the rest of us, I mused. A scientist’s training would presumably send them to such a briefing with an open mind as to what might be disclosed about the mission that had apparently ended in failure 11 years earlier.

But an unhindered journalist would immediately conclude that the powers that be from the UK Space Agency and ESA were unlikely to summon everyone to a high profile event simply to announce “Sorry, we’ve still not found it”.

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One of the images captured by the Huygens probe as it descended through Titan's atmosphere. Image credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

As it happened, the pre-publicity was more than just speculation. The Times’ young and highly respected science editor Hannah Devlin, soon to join The Guardian, managed to speak to a scientist who had actually seen the images that confirmed that Beagle 2 had been found at last—spotted from space by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Hannah, of course, was doing her job. A journalist’s primary duty is to disclose things that others may not want you to know. And when we all gathered at the Royal Society, I sensed a mutual respect from performers on each side for the other in this stage-managed theatre of news.

The press briefing, while not a complete surprise, still delivered a massive new headline. For it turned out that Beagle 2 had not crashed at all, but landed intact. Something, possibly a crumpled airbag, had simply prevented it from opening up fully to operate and call home.

So at last we knew. The Beagle HAD landed. Failure was simply bad luck. It was a genuine case of so near and yet so far. You can read my report from the briefing as well as Chris Lintott’s take on the news.

The Beagle 2 mission had been masterminded by Colin Pillinger, who tragically died suddenly last May. The professor’s wife Judith was at the briefing and it was clearly a highly emotional day for her. We all felt sadness that Colin had not survived to see how close Beagle 2 came to being a triumphant success.

Meanwhile, at ESA’s mission control at Darmstadt, Germany, veterans of the Huygens mission that sent a companion probe to Saturn with NASA’s Cassini, were gathering to celebrate their anniversary of a successful landing on 14 January, 2004. Sen reported this week on key findings from Huygens.

I remember working as a sub-editor in Fleet Street at the time and I ensured we had a page lead to mark this remarkable triumph. Then a photo came in from the surface of Titan, sooner than I had dared hope. I scurried over to the night editors’ desk and showed one of the team the incredible image. I shall always remember the less than awed response: “Oh look, more rocks.” (We did publish it though!) 

Sen blogger and Emeritus Professor of Space Science John Zarnecki played a part in both the Huygens and Beagle 2 missions. He had been in charge of the experiments in the surface science package for Huygens, which he wrote about this week, and had built what he describes a a “fancy weather station” for Beagle.

So did he think that the Beagle 2 announcement threatened to steal the thunder from the Huygens celebrations? Zarnecki, a close colleague and friend of Pillinger, told me before the briefing, and as he headed for Darmstadt: “There is part of me that thinks that this is Colin from beyond the grave, making sure we don’t forget him.”