‘Lost’ and found

Print edition : February 20, 2015

This annotated image shows features seen in an observation by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that have been interpreted as the Beagle 2’s hardware. The orbiter’s HiRISE camera took the image in 2014. Photo: University of Leicester/Beagle 2/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

THE Beagle 2 Mars Lander, built by the U.K. and launched in 2003, had been thought lost on Mars but has now been found in images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), scientists believe. A set of three observations with the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera shows Beagle 2 on the planet surface, ending the mystery of what happened to it. The images show that the lander survived its December 25, 2003, touchdown long enough to at least partially deploy its solar arrays, with what is thought to be the rear cover with its pilot/drogue chute (still attached) and main parachute close by.

Beagle 2 hitched a ride to Mars on the European Space Agency’s long-lived Mars Express mission, an industry-academia collaborative venture designed to deliver high-class science from the surface of the red planet.

“I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found on Mars,” said Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, U.K. He was an integral part of the Beagle 2 project from the start, leading the initial study phase, and was Beagle 2 mission manager. “Every Christmas Day since 2003, I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2. My Christmas Day in 2003 alongside many others who worked on Beagle 2 was ruined by the disappointment of not receiving data from the surface of Mars. To be frank, I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars.”

The HiRISE images searched and identified by Michael Croon of Trier, Germany, a former member of the Mars Express operations team, provide evidence of the lander within the expected landing area of Isidis Planitia, an impact basin close to the equator. Subsequent re-imaging and analysis by the Beagle 2 team, the HiRISE team and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California, confirmed that the targets discovered were of the correct size, shape, colour and dispersion to be Beagle 2. The JPL planetary geologist Tim Parker, who assisted in the search and processed some of the images, said: “I’ve been looking over the objects in the images carefully, and I am convinced that these are Beagle 2 hardware.”

Owing to Beagle 2’s small size (less than 2 m across for the deployed lander), it is right at HiRISE’s limit of detection. Richard Zurek of JPL, project scientist now for the MRO and previously for NASA’s still-missing 1998 Mars Polar Lander, said: “MRO has helped find safe landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity and Phoenix missions and has searched for missing craft to learn what may have gone wrong. It’s an extremely difficult task, as the craft are small and the search areas are vast. It takes the best camera we have in Mars orbit and work by dedicated individuals to be successful at this.”