Beagle-2 team vows to play on despite probe's silence

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was a bitter-sweet moment. The European mission to Mars had put a satellite in perfect orbit but it had failed to contact its British "baby", the Beagle 2 space probe, which went missing on Christmas Day during its descent to the red planet.

Yesterday was the best opportunity so far to find Beagle 2, which is languishing somewhere on the Martian surface either because of a defective transmission system or because it has become an expensive piece of mangled space junk.

Professor Colin Pillinger, the Open University scientist who developed the idea of Beagle 2, put on a brave face when he heard the bad news yesterday but little could hide his disappointment.

At the end of a tense press conference Professor Pillinger gave, in effect, a eulogy for Beagle 2 saying that the search will continue and that it should not be seen as an example of a British failure. He said: "We've demonstrated that we should be part of the space effort. We've demonstrated that people are interested in science and technology."

The scientist used football analogies throughout the mission to get his message across. Minutes before the bad news was delivered he said: "It's not all over. We play to the final whistle." After he heard that Mars Express had failed to contact Beagle 2 he said: "The only thing I can say is that to play to the final whistle, it only takes a fraction of a second to score a goal - that's the way we have to look at this."

Mars Express will continue its search for the British-built probe for almost another month even though yesterday's search ended in silence.

Professor David Southwood, director of science at the European Space Agency, who delivered the bad news in a live video link from the agency's headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, said it was a sad day for all the scientists who worked on the mission.

He said: "We did not get any content of the signal, nor indeed the signal, from the surface of Mars. It is not the end of the story - there are more shots to play for - but I have to say that this is a setback. It makes one feel really very sad. Beagle 2 was the cherry on the cake and one of the bitter-sweet aspects of this is that Mars Express, the mother ship, is performing beautifully. But there are other opportunities [to make contact] and we will not give up."

Despite the loss of contact during the initial descent, scientists at the Lander Operations Control Centre in Leicester had remained optimistic. They were confident that the £45m probe landed on target in Isidis Planitia, a vast plain near the equator of Mars which is thought once to have been the bed of a huge lake. But it was never clear whether Beagle 2 had crashed or simply suffered a communications failure. Attempts by the American satellite Mars Odyssey to contact Beagle 2 failed during 11 previous programmed passes above Isidis Planitia, and radio telescopes on Earth were also unable to detect any of the probe's transmissions.

Beagle 2 scientists had hoped the problem would be solved yesterday when Mars Express moved into an orbit close enough for direct contact. This was the only communications link that had been thoroughly tested "end to end", said Professor Pillinger.

The probe carried a heat shield, a parachute and three inflatable gas bags to cushion its landing but something appears to have failed during the critical seven minutes of its descent that caused the 65kg probe to crash, destroying hope of future communications.

It was possible that the probe had landed safely and had suffered a minor problem causing the times of transmission to go awry. If that was the case, Beagle 2 should have turned itself into "communications search mode 1" after realising that its initial contact with Odyssey had failed. This is when it listens for 80 minutes during the Martian day and night in an efffort to make contact with an orbiting satellite.

As a result of this link not being established, Beagle 2 should at the weekend have switched into "communications mode 2" when the receiver is on for 59 minutes out of every hour of the Martian day and it sends out a carrier signal five times in each daytime hour.

Mars Express will make several more passes over the landing site, the longest on 12 and 14 January but most experts now believe the probe was lost on its descent. As Professor Pillinger admitted yesterday: "It's difficult to land on Mars, there's no doubt about it."