Tiny lander lost and found

Posted by Korey Haynes
on Friday, January 16, 2015

The fully deployed Beagle 2 (left) looks like a mechanical flower. The images returned by HiRISE aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (right) show that instead only a few of its solar panels unfolded as planned.
Today, the University of Leicester announced that they have identified the remains of Beagle 2, a Mars lander presumed lost over a decade ago. Beagle 2 hitched a ride to the Red Planet on the European Space Agency's Mars Express (still in operation) back in 2003. It was a tiny lander, built to carry-on size for its orbiting partner. A joint effort between several UK universities and corporations (including the University of Leicester, the Open University, and EADS Astrium), Beagle 2 was supposed to perform geologic science on its landing site and search for possible signatures of life. Jump conditions looked good, and the little lander began its long dive through the atmosphere December 19. It was expected to send back an “all’s clear” when it touched down on Christmas Day, routing a signal through NASA’s Mars Odyssey already in orbit. Instead the team on Earth received nothing but silence, a gloomy Christmas gift.

The team waited, at first hopefully, then with increasing doubt. Maybe the error was in communication between Mars Odyssey and Beagle 2, and Mars Express would have better luck. Initial attempts, throughout the beginning of the new year, failed. Beagle 2 missed a scheduled check-in with Mars Express on January 12. The team called the lander, over and over. If all else failed, Beagle 2 should have phoned home through an auto-transmit mode February 2. There was only more silence. On February 6, 2004, the mission was officially declared lost.

Panels convened to discuss its fate, to figure where fault lay, if anywhere, and to provide guidance for future missions in the form of “lessons learned.” A variety of explanations were offered, based on known conditions and likeliest unknowns. The investigation’s best guess was that the martian atmosphere was thinner than anticipated, resulting in the parachute system failing to properly cushion the lander’s fall. It had most likely crashed. The report was detailed and carefully researched, but without any wreckage or signals to study, its conclusions remained largely guesswork. In hindsight, it seemed clear that maintaining contact with the probe during its descent would have provided valuable information about its fate, whether or not it could have averted the tragedy. This option had not been available for Beagle 2, but it became a priority for future missions. The mission team moved on, and in some cases passed on. Colin Pillinger, who led the Beagle 2 project, passed away only last May. While his career continued after Beagle 2, he never learned the fate of his lost lander.

One man, however, refused to give up hope. Michael Croon, a former member of the Mars Express team and now a private citizen, carefully scanned HiRISE images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Late last year, he thought he’d found something in a few recent images. The gang got back together. The Beagle 2 team worked in conjunction with the HiRISE team and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to re-image and re-analyze the planned landing site. A few days ago, word began to circulate that Beagle 2 might have been found. And today it was confirmed.

"My nightmare is that Beagle is sat there on the surface of Mars still trying to talk to us and, for the sake of a broken cable, it's not," said Mark Sims, University of Leicester, in 2004. Sims was a member of the original Beagle 2 team and has also been involved in the most recent — and successful — search effort. The reality of the situation is unfortunately similar to his fears. Contrary to the investigation's conclusions in 2004, Beagle 2 does appear to have made it successfully to ground. Its parachute deployed and it hit its landing target right on. Unfortunately, like many space missions, Beagle 2 was a bit of a Transformer, and the images seem to show that its solar panels never completely deployed, thereby never exposing the RF antenna it needed to call home. So Beagle 2 has waited patiently and silently on Mars for these 11 years, safely landed but unable to speak.

The news seems bittersweet to me. I’ve been known to anthropomorphize the various Mars rovers, which is certainly a contributing factor. How could I not, when they have such wonderful Twitter feeds and inspired the saddest web-comic in the world? So I feel for Beagle 2, lost and alone for so many years, and for Colin Pillinger, who saw his lander lost, but never found. "Unfortunately," Sims agrees, "he will never know how close Beagle 2 got to doing the world-class science that he and the rest of the team proposed."

But Sims appears less conflicted about the lander itself: “I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found on Mars. Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2.” Merry Christmas, Mark Sims (and the rest of the Beagle 2 team). Only 11 years and three weeks late.

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