British Mars probe found just a metre off its target

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The Independent Online

The Beagle 2 probe, stranded on Mars since it crash-landed almost two years ago, has been found, scientists said yesterday.

After studying images covering an area of 140 square km around the landing site scientists are confident that they have located the wreckage that was due to touch down on Christmas Day 2003.

And if the probe had landed only one metre to the north, they say it would have survived and would be functioning today.

Guy Rennie, a Photogrammetrist and image analyst who was called in to examine images of the landing area, said: "We are very confident that it is Beagle 2, the evidence is extremely compelling. The probe's first impact was into the upper wall of the crater, which was incredibly unlucky."

He has studied the images with Professor Colin Pillinger, the mission commander, Stuart Hurst, Jim Clemmet, Dave Northey and Lutz Richter, who were all involved in the Beagle project and investigation into why radio contact with the probe was never established.

From the images, the team believe that Beagle 2 hit the crater, which would have increased the risk of the lander being damaged.

The probe's protective covering, made up of three gas bags, was also damaged in the impact, causing at least one of the segments to deflate. Scientists have plotted the bounces of Beagle 2 as it ricocheted within the crater.

Mr Rennie said: "Based on the image quality we can never say definitively that this is Beagle 2, but nothing else comes close. It has fallen precisely within the landing ellipse, in a crater that has a diameter of 18.5 metres. Had it landed just one metre to the north, we would expect to be communicating with it today.

Mr Rennie said that there are features within the crater, seen on the images he has studied, which are "very, very unusual and not seen elsewhere". He said that the features he has identified within the crater could be the gas bags and a lander.

Although there will be no rescue mission, a Nasa probe will arrive in Mars's orbit in March and by mid-2006 will be taking higher resolution images of the wreckage than have been seen.

Yesterday was the second anniversary of the last sighting of Beagle 2, when it was ejected from the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. It was expected to land in the Isidis basin, a flat boulder-strewn plain, on the surface of Mars on Christmas Day 2003.

It was envisaged as the first lander since the US Viking probes of the 1970s to look specifically for evidence of life, taking close-up images of soil and rocks, but no radio signal was received.