NASA has found the doomed spacecraft Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars, and it appears to be intact. High-resolution images taken from orbit have identified its landing location, and with closer examination it seems the craft landed on Mars safely.
The UK-led European probe was set to make a soft touchdown on the Red Planet on Christmas Day, 2003, using parachutes and airbags. However, after it made its entry into the atmosphere, contact with the probe was lost, and no one has heard from it since. This led many scientists to assume it had been destroyed in a high-velocity impact or simply burned up in the atmosphere.
But new images, taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, have offered new clues as to what actually happened to the probe. After careful examination of the images, it seems the system did not unfurl fully.
"Without full deployment, there is no way we could have communicated with it as the radio frequency antenna was under the solar panels," says Prof Mark Sims, Beagle's mission manager from Leicester University. "The failure cause is pure speculation, but it could have been, and probably was, down to sheer bad luck - a heavy bounce perhaps distorting the structure as clearances on solar panel deployment weren't big; or a punctured and slowly leaking airbag not separating sufficiently from the lander, causing a hang-up in deployment."
The discovery of the Beagle 2 comes less than a year after the death of the probe's principal investigator, Colin Pillinger. "Colin was always fond of a football analogy. No doubt he would have compared Beagle2 landing on Mars, but being unable to communicate, to having 'hit the crossbar' rather than missing the goal completely" Pillinger's wife and fellow Beagle teammember, Dr. Judith Pillinger says. "Beagle2 was born out of Colin's quest for scientific knowledge. Had he known the team came so close to scoring he would certainly have been campaigning to 'tap in the rebound' with Beagle3 and continue experiments to answer questions about life on Mars."
The Beagle 2 failure will continue to be deeply frustrating to the teams behind the project, because now they realize how close they were to success. The Beagle landed just 5km from the center of its targeted touchdown zone. In fact, the pictures indicate that all elements of the entry including the descent and landing did their job.
The official inquiry to the failure of the Beagle 2 determined that a mix of poor management and inadequate systems testing led to the failure. The report also conceded that too little money was spent on the project.
"We have already taken a lot of lessons from the 'failure' of Beagle, and especially on the need to be connected, because if we had been connected in terms of communications we would have known we were on Planet Mars" ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain says.
And reflecting on Colin Pillinger's role in the project he added: "It's a pity that he is not with us anymore, because this was his baby. And I'm really glad - really glad - [it's been found] for him."