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Mystery update raises hopes that Mars probe Beagle 2 has been found

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jan 13, 2015, 16:44 UTC

Sen—More than 11 years after UK Mars probe Beagle 2 was lost, believed crashed, space scientists are set to reveal new findings about what hapened to the spacecraft.

Mystery surrounds exactly what will be disclosed by experts from the European Space Agency and the UK Space Agency at the Royal Society in London on Friday.

But it has raised hopes that an orbiting spacecraft around Mars might have located Beagle 2. The probe was the brainchild of mutton-chopped Professor Colin Pillinger, of the UK’s Open University, who died suddenly in May last year from a brain haemorrhage.

He got Blur and Damien Hirst involved to record the call sign and produce a callibration chart, to boost the PR side of the mission. And though it ultimately failed, the mission inspired a generation of youngsters.

Beagle 2 was carried to Mars by ESA’s Mars Express which remains in orbit to this day performing valuable surveys of the planet. Beagle was due to land on Christmas Day 2003, in a region near the equator called Isidis Planitia, but nothing was ever heard from the tiny craft.

Experts later concluded that its parachute had failed in the extra thin atmosphere and it hit the ground too hard.

Months later, Colin called an impromptu press conference, convinced that he had identified a speck in a photo of the martian surface as his lost probe. But later higher-resolution imagery from a NASA orbiter showed there was nothing.

But this time there is hope that something really has been found. The panel at Friday’s announcement will include Beagle 2’s mission manager Professor Mark Sims, Dr John Bridges of Leicester University’s Space Research Centre, the European Space Agency’s director of science and robotic exploration Alvaro Giménez, and David Parker, chief executive of the UK Space Agency.

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How NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appears above the martian landscape. There is speculation that its HiRISE camera has located Beagle 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste

All are remaining tight-lipped about what will be revealed. But interestingly, Dr Bridges is a member of the team working with the HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is the only imager powerful enough to pick out Beagle 2 from orbit.

Professor Pillinger’s former colleague, Emeritus Professor of Space Science John Zarnecki, told this Sen writer: “I don’t know what they will announce. All one can think of is that they might have got an image of the probe. But if Beagle 2 is in a thousand pieces, it is unlikely that we will have found the pieces.

“When dear old Colin was alive, he was seeing Beagle in single pixels. None of us could see it—he was the only one who could. So if they really have found it this time, it would be wonderful.”

Professor Zarnecki, who headed the OU’s Planetary and Space Sciences department, said that finding Beagle 2 would be an important event. But there was no chance that it could still work.

He said: “The probe will be dead. There could be no battery life and it would have frozen probably. Electronic materials and components don’t like the cold of Mars very much. 

“The main thing is that it could tell us something about how and why it failed. We’re not going to get anything scientific out of it now, but anything we can learn about how and why it failed informs our designs for the future. 

“One of the reasons why space missions on the whole are so successful is that we do learn from experience. It is similar to why flying by plane is so safe - we learn from failures.”

Professor Zarnecki had his own experiment on Beagle 2, a tiny device to measure temperature, air pressure, and wind-speed and direction - “like a weather station, but a fancy one”, he said.

Later he was a leading figure behind another European probe, Huygens, which successfully landed on Saturn’s biggest Moon, Titan, ten years ago this week, as part of NASA’s Cassini mission.