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NASA photos reveal that UK's Beagle 2 landed intact on Mars

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jan 16, 2015, 20:19 UTC, Updated Jan 17, 2015, 2:05 UTC

Sen—An 11-year mystery ended today when space scientists confirmed that the UK’s lost Beagle 2 probe has been located on the surface of Mars.

Images of the £50 million ($75 million) probe and components used during descent through the Martian atmosphere have been captured from space by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The orbiting camera can pick out objects a foot across (30cm). Many weeks of close analysis by experts have convinced them that the tiny shapes photographed on the ground are all from Beagle 2, which was due to touch down on Mars on Christmas Day, 2003, to search for life. 

And they are delighted that, though the probe never called home, it made a safe landing.

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Components of Beagle 2 and its landing gear are identified on the martian surface. Image credit: University of Leicester/Beagle 2/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Sadly, the man who spearheaded the mission, Professor Colin Pillinger, died suddenly in May last year and so will never know that his beloved probe made it to Mars successfully.

“We are not looking at a crash site,” David Parker, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, told a special briefing that Sen attended today. “Beagle 2 successfully landed but only partially deployed.”

The HiRISE images appear to show the lander itself glinting in the sunlight, with its rear cover still attached to the drogue chute, and the main parachute also lying close by. They are all in the area where Beagle 2 was expected to land, around 5 km from the target point within a region called Isidis Planitia.

Beagle 2 was carried to Mars by Europe’s Mars Express Orbiter, which is still circling the Red Planet. A former member of the Mars Express team, Michael Croon, of Trier, Germany, scoured the NASA pictures to find Beagle 2. Both European and NASA scientists believe he has been successful.

Dr Tim Parker, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, who helped examine and process the images said: “I’ve been looking over the Croon objects carefully, and I’m convinved that these are Beagle 2 hardware.”

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An enlarged and sharpened image of the Beagle 2 lander, partially deployed on the surface of Mars, left, and an impression of how the probe should have looked in operation. Image credits: University of Leicester/Beagle 2/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Dr John Bridges, of Leicester University’s Department of Space and Astronomy said: “Beagle 2 is a glinting object but not casting any shadows. It has a distinct bright colour unlike anything else in the image.”

He said this was to be expected as the craft’s unfolded petals were 70 per cent reflective and the probe was “a flattish object, not a pointy rock”. The object, about 2 metres across, showed up in more than one picture, so was not an artifact, he added.

Analysis of the images will continue in the months ahead. But Professor Mark Sims, mission manager on the Beagle 2 team, said they had “extremely good evidence for the lander” and good evidence for other components.

They were all of the expected sizes and shapes, and were distributed across the surface in the sequence expected from the planned landing.

One or more panels on Beagle 2 had opened and were exposed—possibly up to three. But all four would have had to deploy for the antenna to operate and allow the probe to phone home.

Professor Sims said the evidence showed the UK had made the first European controlled landing on another planet. “Overall, Beagle 2 was a great success,” he added.

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How Beagle 2 was intended to enter the martian atmosphere and land. Image credit: Beagle 2

Professor Sims told Sen that the cause of Beagle 2’s failure to work as planned was most probably a “bad luck scenario”. He said: “In the end, you have to be lucky on the day. If the air was thin it would have given us a very much harder landing, which might be why we don’t have a fully deployed Beagle. But we don’t know.

“NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers landed just a couple of weeks after Beagle 2 and their results suggest the air was thinner.”

Professor Sims said the probe could still be functional, but unable to broadcast, if sunlight had kept its batteries charged. He said: “There could still be power going to Beagle 2 and it might still be working and saying ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.’”

The team analysing the HiRISE images has failed to identify the airbags that helped Beagle 2 bounce to a soft landing after parachuting through the atmosphere.

Professor Sims told us: “There is no evidence of where the airbags landed, and the trouble is they are sand coloured—basically the same colour as Mars. That’s why we’ve said nothing about the airbags.

“One could be under the probe. If we use our imagination we can believe we see some airbags near the probe but they could also be rocks. They’re damned difficult to spot because they’re the wrong colour and may have collapsed to a strange shape.”

The European Space Agency’s director of science and robotic exploration Alvaro Giménez told the briefing: “Mars exploration is very difficult and none of the space-faring nations got it right first time. But the successful descent and landing of Beagle 2 vindicate the courageous effort of its team.”