Sun, Jan 18, 2015 - Page 6 News List

Long-lost lander Beagle-2 spotted on Mars: ESA

HIRISE HELP:A special camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter added the missing probe to a list of landers it has uncovered while circling the Red Planet


It turns out the Beagle has landed after all — but it never called home.

The spacecraft Beagle-2 went missing 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 Friday, more than 11 years later, European Space Agency (ESA) officials reported that the Beagle-2 had been finally found — thanks to detective work based on new photographs taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The images show that the craft 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 project, which was designed to search for signs of life on Mars.

Then-ESA Mars Express project manager Rudolf Schmidt called the finding “excellent news.”

He said that not knowing what happened to Beagle-2 had “remained a nagging worry.”

Soon after Beagle-2’s disappearance, NASA landed its Spirit and Opportunity rovers near the Martian equator. Both sent back troves of images and discoveries, providing the sort of information astronomers had been seeking when the first Mars probes began.

Mars is notoriously hard to reach. In a half-century of launch attempts, more than half of the missions by various countries have failed to get off the ground on Earth or overshot Mars.

Landing on the planet is particularly treacherous because of its thin atmosphere. Incoming spacecraft traveling at 19,300kph have scant minutes to slow to a stop. The Martian terrain is also full of obstacles — boulders, cracks and cliffs — and a wrong move can doom a spacecraft.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has circled the planet since 2006, has periodically searched for spacecraft missing in action.

The 65kg, 1.8m-wide Beagle-2 was named for the ship that carried naturalist Charles Darwin on his voyage of discovery in the 1830s.

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 Beagle-2 upon landing.

HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen 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. In the case of Beagle-2, we didn’t get anything. All we had to go by was the target landing area.”

University of Leicester professor Mark Sims, 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, adding that he has been troubled on every Christmas Day by the unknown fate of the craft.

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