The Beagle had landed safely after all, but it didn’t have the energy to bark. The UK Space Agency has confirmed that the only British space probe sent to Mars safely landed on the Red Planet but failed to fully deploy its solar panels for a successful radio transmission.
More than 11 years after Beagle 2 was lost in the early hours of Christmas day 2003, scientists said they have now found the stricken spacecraft intact but only partially deployed just 5km (3 miles) from the centre of its intended landing site on Isidis Planitia, an impact crater close to the Martian equator.
Images taken by the HiRISE camera on board Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal that the tiny spaceprobe, just 2 metres across when fully unfolded, is still attached to its pilot drogue parachute with its main ‘chute stretched out nearby, indicating that it had gone through all the necessary manoeuvres for entry, descent and landing.
However, the images also show that its four solar panels did not completely unfurl as intended, meaning that it failed to power up the batteries that were supposed to extended its radio aerial and so permit a success transmission of its nine-note call sign written by the Britpop band Blur.
“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,” said David Parker, the space agency’s chief executive.
“What we can say with some confidence today is that Beagle 2 is no longer lost and furthermore it seems we are not looking at a crash site. We have good evidence of Beagle 2 resting on the surface of Mars,” Dr Parker said at the Royal Society in London.
“These images are consistent with the Beagle 2 having successfully landed on Mars but then only partially deploying itself,” he said.
Professor Mark Sims of Leicester University said that the images indicated that one of the four solar panels became stuck in the closed position, possibly as a result of being trapped by one of the inflatable air bags designed to cushion the impact with the ground.
“To be frank, I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars. The images vindicate the hard work put in by many people and companies both here in the UK and around Europe and the world in building Beagle 2,” Professor Sims said.
“The highly-complex entry, descent and landing sequence seems to have worked perfectly and only during the final phases of deployment did Beagle 2 unfortunately run into problems. I view it as a great achievement that the team built Beagle 2 in a little over four years and successfully landed it on the surface of Mars,” he said.
John Bridges, of the University of Leicester, said the HiRISE camera spotted the lander from 185 miles above Mars, just three miles from its intended landing site. It found three objects, believed to be the lander and its landing equipment.
They “glinted” in the sun but cast no shadow, he said. “This is not just a pile of rocks and sand on the Martian surface. This is an alien object, a man-made object,” he added.
Beagle 2 hitched a ride on the European Space Agency’s Mar Express mission and was the brainchild of Professor Colin Pillinger, a planetary scientist at the Open University who died last year not knowing what happened to his spaceprobe, which he named after the ship on which Charles Darwin made his famous journey around the world in the 19th Century.
Yesterday, his daughter Shusanah, said that her father would have been pleased at the success and so would have defied his critics “who want to say that Beagle 2 is a failure”.
Ms Pillinger added: “This shows such an immense success and not forgetting all the other things that went on in the background of Beagle 2, all the promotion of science, all of the inspiration to children. He would love that this is in the news again. He would love that this could inspire that next generation to do Beagle 3.”Reuse content