NASA’s HiRise camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected the glint (top) of the Beagle 2 in photos taken last year and released this week. The lander appears to have at least partially deployed. Credit: NASA
Ruff-ruff! The long-lost Beagle 2 lander has been found. Wish I could say it’s still wagging its tail, but at least we finally know where it is after 11 years of wondering.
Built by the Brits and sent to the Red Planet aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft in June 2003, it was set to land on Christmas Day that year. Everything worked flawlessly, with the first radio contact expected shortly after the scheduled landing time, but no signal was received. Then or ever.
The Beagle 2 lander, named after HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on expeditions around the world, looks something like a pocket watch before deployment. Upon landing, the watch top (right) snapped open and the individual panels unfolded from the bottom of the lander. Credit: ESA
Beagle was the first British and European attempt to soft land on Mars. All attempts to contact the probe failed, leading some to believe that the Beagle 2 had crash landed. Later, it was determined that an error had prevented two of the spacecraft’s four solar panels from deploying, blocking the spacecraft’s ability to communicate.
Michael Croon of Trier, Germany, a former member of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express operations team pored over images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which operates a high-resolution camera capable of seeing objects the size of a kitchen table on Mars, and found evidence for the Beagle 2.
This photo shows where features seen in a 2014 observation by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been interpreted as hardware from the Dec. 25, 2003, arrival at Mars of the United Kingdom’s Beagle 2 Lander. The scale bar at right shows 0.1 km or a distance of 328 feet. Click to enlarge.
NASA then directed MRO to re-photograph the expected landing location in Isidis Planitia, a large, ancient impact basin near the Martian equator. Analysis of those images revealed a bright object that appeared in multiple pictures taken at different times, ruling out the possibility it was a cosmic ray hit on the camera’s sensor. Cosmic rays, high-speed particles (mostly single protons) careen through space all the time. When they hit a camera sensor they can leave bright streaks or spots.
Two images taken months apart, with the sun at different angles, are merged in this view. A glint comes from a different part of the lander in one than in the other, interpreted as evidence of more than one deployed panel on the lander. Credit: HiRISE/NASA/JPL/Parker/Leicester
Due to the small size of Beagle 2 (less than 7 feet, or 2 meters across for the deployed lander) it’s right at the limit of detection of HiRISE, but enhanced photos clearly show what appear to be the solar panels. That means the lander made it safely to surface after all and even partially deployed.
It’s a shame we weren’t able to establish communications. Beagle 2 was equipped with a pair of stereo cameras, a microscope and a drill to collect rock samples that could be analyzed on site.
Simulation of Beagle 2 on Mars showing the instrument-studded robotic arm and the “mole” (at left). Credit: NASA
It even carried a small “mole” or Planetary Undersurface Tool (PLUTO) that could move across the surface at just under an inch per second. When a suitable spot was found, the mole would have burrowed into the ground to collect a sample. Finished with its task, the mole and its sample would have been reeled back to the lander on its power cable. Gods, what a cool idea!
“I can imagine the sense of closure that the Beagle 2 team must feel,” said Richard Zurek of JPL, project scientist now for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
Even if our best plans go awry, there’s nothing like closure to help us move on to the next opportunity.