16 Jan 2015

Beagle 2 Lander Found on Mars

The Beagle 2 Mars Lander, the brain-child of the late Emeritus Professor at The Open University, Colin Pilinger, which was thought lost on Mars since 2003, has been found partially deployed on the surface of the planet, helping end the mystery of what happened to the mission more than a decade ago. This find shows that the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) sequence for Beagle 2 worked and the lander did successfully touchdown on Mars on Christmas Day 2003.

Beagle 2 hitched a ride to Mars on ESA’s Mars Express mission and was a collaboration between industry and academia. It would have delivered world-class science from the surface of the Red Planet. Many UK academic groups and industrial companies contributed to Beagle 2. Images taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and initially searched by Michael Croon of Trier, Germany, a former member of ESA’s Mars Express operations team at ESOC, have identified clear evidence for the lander and convincing evidence for key entry and descent components on the surface of Mars within the expected landing area of Isidis Planitia (an impact basin close to the equator).

Since the loss of Beagle 2 following its landing on Christmas Day 2003, Michael has, in parallel with members of the Beagle 2 industrial and scientific teams, been patiently screening images from HiRISE looking for signs of Beagle 2. Subsequent re-imaging and analysis by the Beagle 2 team, HiRISE team and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has confirmed that the targets discovered, are of the correct size, shape, colour and dispersion (i.e. separation) to be Beagle 2.

The images, following analysis by members of the Beagle 2 team and NASA, show the Beagle 2 lander in what appears to be a partially deployed configuration, with what is thought to be the rear cover with its pilot/drogue chute (still attached) and main parachute close by. Due to the small size of Beagle 2 (less than 2m across for the deployed lander) it is right at the limit of detection of imaging systems (cameras) orbiting Mars. The targets are within the expected landing area at a distance of ~5km from its centre.

Several interpretations of the image of the lander have been identified, consistent with the lander’s size and shape. The imaging data is, however, consistent with only a partial deployment following landing. This would explain why no signal or data was received from the lander – as full deployment of all solar panels was needed to expose the RF antenna which would transmit data and receive commands from Earth. Unfortunately given the partial deployment (and covering of the RF antenna) it would not be possible to revive Beagle 2 and recover data from it.

Professor Colin Pillinger from The Open University who led the Beagle 2 project with inspirational enthusiasm died in May 2014. Dr Judith Pillinger, who was heavily involved in the Beagle 2 project and was married to Prof. Colin Pillinger, said:

“On behalf of Colin, I would like to thank everyone who joined with him to make Beagle 2 happen so many years ago and in particular the NASA MRO HiRISE team and colleagues who have continued to search for the lander. For me and his family, of course, seeing the images from Mars brings about mixed emotions. An immense sense of pride is inevitably tinged with great sadness that Colin is not able to share the findings with us.

“Colin was always fond of a football analogy. No doubt he would have compared Beagle 2 landing on Mars, but being unable to communicate, to having ‘hit the crossbar’ rather than missing the goal completely. Beagle 2 was born out of Colin's quest for scientific knowledge. Had he known the team came so close to scoring he would certainly have been campaigning to 'tap in the rebound' with Beagle 3 and continue experiments to answer questions about life on Mars.”

Dr David Parker, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said:
“The history of space exploration is marked by both success and failure. This finding makes the case that Beagle 2 was more of a success than we previously knew and undoubtedly an important step in Europe’s continuing exploration of Mars.”

Others that provided major contributions to Beagle 2 were Professor George Fraser of the University of Leicester and Professor David Barnes of Aberystwyth University who also died in 2014.

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