Schiaparelli's recent crash-landing highlighted, once again, how difficult it is to safely land on Mars. Unfortunately, the European Space Agency (ESA) hasn’t got a good track record of touching ground on the Red Planet.
In 2003, ESA sent the spacecraft Mars Express to our planetary neighbor, and attached to it was a British lander called Beagle 2. Similar to Schiaparelli, which came attached to the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, Beagle 2 was deployed and it was expected to land, spread its solar panels, and send a message on December 25, 2003. The message never came, and for 11 years the fate of the mission remained unknown.
The probe was found again in 2014 by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), thanks to its incredible high-resolution camera HiRISE. And now scientists from the University of Leicester and De Montfort University have worked out what went wrong with the lander.
Space scientists and digital designers created a 3D model of Beagle 2, and simulated how the light of the Sun would bounce off the lander in various scenarios. They then compared the simulated images with actual images from HiRISE and discovered that at least three, if not all four, solar panels were deployed.
The team believes that Beagle 2 landed correctly and then something went wrong before it could get in touch with Earth. Possibly one of the solar panels unfolded in the wrong way, stopping or blocking the lander's antenna.
“In reality, we may of course never know exactly what caused its failure to communicate after what has been confirmed as a successful landing, which was a fantastic achievement by the Beagle 2 team," Professor Mark Sims, former Beagle 2 Mission Manager from the University of Leicester, said in a statement.
"The work shows frustratingly that Beagle 2 came so close to working as intended on Mars.”
The researchers are planning to publish their findings soon, and you can see an animation of what happened at De Montfort University's Beagle 2 website.