On Christmas day, 2003, the British spacecraft Beagle 2 was supposed to make touchdown on the surface of Mars to begin its mission of searching for signs of extraterrestrial life. Scientists eagerly awaited communication from the probe to confirm its landing, but disappointedly, no radio contact was ever made. Beagle 2 was presumed destroyed.
Now, twelve years on, the unlucky explorer has finally been spotted, and it looks like it didn’t experience a crash landing after all. New images, taken from orbit by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, show the doomed probe’s landing spot, and it appears to be intact. What’s more, the images hint at what went wrong on that fateful Christmas day.
University of Leicester/NASA/JPL.
Beagle 2, which was named after Charles Darwin’s famous ship, piggybacked to Mars with ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, which is still in operation today. The probe separated from its mothership on December 19, and the orbiter even took a photo of Beagle 2 on its way down. But what happened next remained a mystery.
The craft was supposed to make a soft landing using parachutes and airbags, but some believed that it may have been caught out by the thinner than anticipated Martian atmosphere, causing it to approach too fast and thus hit the surface too hard. However, the images suggest that Beagle 2 is in one piece, so it probably didn’t experience a crash landing. What seems to be the case is that it failed to correctly unfold its petal-like solar panels, meaning it couldn't talk to scientists back on Earth.
“Without full deployment, there is no way we could have communicated with it as the radio frequency antenna was under the solar panels,” Beagle mission manager Professor Mark Sims told BBC News. What caused this failure is pure speculation, says Sims, although it could have been a heavy bounce or a punctured airbag.
The failure of this mission was blamed on a number of things, including poor management, inadequate testing, and its shoestring budget of £50 million ($76 million). Now, it seems that it was just a case of bad luck. Unfortunately, Beagle’s principal investigator, Colin Pillinger, will never know just how close his team was to achieving success, as he died last year.