It turns out the Beagle has landed after all – but it never called home.
The gone-but-not-forgotten spacecraft went AWOL on Christmas Day, 2003, when it was supposed to land on Mars and start transmitting data back to Earth.
Instead, the British-built craft went dark. After several months, it was declared lost – presumed to have been destroyed during its approach or while trying to land on the red planet.
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On Friday, more than 11 years later, European Space Agency officials reported that the Beagle-2 had been found, finally – thanks to extensive detective work based on new photos taken by the high-resolution camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The photos show the Beagle-2 landed safely on Mars and partially deployed – but was unable to fully deploy and start communicating.
Still, it was a vindication of sorts for space scientists who had wondered for more than a decade about the fate of their pet project, which was designed to search for signs of life on Mars.
Rudolf Schmidt, ESA’s Mars Express project manager at the time, called the finding “excellent news.” He said that not knowing what happened to Beagle-2 had “remained a nagging worry.”
Since the 2003 disappearance of Beagle-2, U.S. spacecraft have landed on Mars and sent back many pictures and extensive scientific data, providing the sort of information astronomers had been seeking when the first Mars probes began.
Yet Mars is a notoriously elusive target. The world’s overall success rate since the 1960s for Mars missions is less than 50-50.
NASA has attempted the most, 20 launches so far, and has the best success rate: 70 percent.
Russia, in second place with 18 Mars launches, has a dismal 14 percent success rate. China collaborated on one of the Russian flops. Europe and Japan have attempted one Martian mission each; the European Mars Express has had mixed results, while the Japanese effort fizzled.
Officials said careful analysis of the high-resolution photos showed the Beagle-2 had landed within its expected landing area in a basin close to the Martian equator. Signs of key entry and descent components were also spotted.
Identifying the craft was made more difficult by its small size – it is only about 7 feet wide.
Experts who helped identify the lander at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Lab said the photographs are “consistent” with only a partial deployment of the Beatle-2 upon landing.
They said a failure to fully deploy would explain why no data or signal from the craft was ever received, since a complete deployment of all of its solar panels would have been needed for successful transmission.
Alfred McEwen, chief investigator of the project, said the special camera had been used to search for all of the landers that have tried to descend to the surface of Mars.
“This the first time we found one that didn’t send a signal after it landed,” he said. “If the landing sequence works correctly, the probe sends a radio signal, and you can use that to pinpoint where it is coming from, even if it broadcasts only very briefly. But in the case of Beagle-2, we didn’t get anything. All we had to go by was the target landing area.”
Experts who worked on the project said the Beagle-2 mission can now be classified a partial success – even if it never provided information about possible life on Mars.
UK Space Agency chief executive David Parker said the discovery of the craft showed its complex landing procedures had worked.
“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,” he said.
The Beagle-2 was launched on ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. It was released from its mother ship on Dec. 19, 2003, and was supposed to land six days later, but no communications with the lander were ever established.
Professor Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, who worked on the project, said the new information shows the team came extremely close to its goal of getting data from Mars, with the deployment failing only in its final stage.
“To be frank, I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle-2,” he said, admitting he was troubled every Christmas Day by the unknown fate of the craft.
David Rising in Berlin contributed