Last Friday (the 16th of January) the UK Space Agency held a press conference to announce what it thinks happened to Beagle 2. Using new images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, it is believed that they have found the lander on Mars’ surface, and these images can be used to possibly better understand why the lander failed.
The background to Beagle 2
Beagle 2 was a lander designed to look for signs of life on Mars. It was named after the Beagle, which famously took Charles Darwin to the Galapagos islands in the 1830s; a voyage which played a key role in Darwin developing his theory of evolution. As the project’s lead-scientist Colin Pillinger explained
HMS Beagle was the ship that took Darwin on his voyage around the world in the 1830s and led to our knowledge about life on Earth making a real quantum leap. We hope Beagle 2 will do the same thing for life on Mars.
Beagle 2 was designed and built by a team of mainly UK-based scientists and engineers, and went to Mars as part of ESA’s Mars Express mission, which left Earth in June 2003 and reached Mars in December of the same year. The Beagle 2 lander was just under 1-metre in diameter, and looked a little like two back-to-back dustbin lids. The intention was for Beagle 2 to land at a location known as Isidis Planatia, a large flat sedimentary basin near Mars’ equator, Upon landing, Beagle 2 would unfold a series of “petals” to deploy its solar panels and scientific instruments. These instruments included a drill to get below the surface of Mars to look for signs of microbial life on the planet.
As the Mars Express mothership approached Mars, the Beagle 2 lander successfully separated on the 19th of December at 8:31 UT. It was meant to land on the surface on the 25th of December, and upon landing it had been programmed to announce its arrival by playing some music composed by Britpop band Blur. However, Beagle 2 never announced its landing and it has always been assumed that it probably crashed into the surface. But, of course, no one has known the reasons for this failure, and it would greatly help future missions if scientists could learn more about why the lander failed to land safely.
The new images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
There are several satellites in orbit about Mars, including ESA’s Mars Express, and these orbiters take images of Mars’ surface. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which arrived at Mars in March 2006, has the highest resolution camera of all of the current satellites, a camera known as HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). Using techniques of adding multiple images together which are slightly offset from each other, HiRISE is able to see detail on the surface down to a size of only 5cm.
HiRISE has already taken images of other probes which have landed on Mars’ surface, namely Vikings 1 and 2 (which landed in the 1970s), and Spirit, Opportunity and the Mars Curiosity Rover. It has been looking for Beagle 2 for the last few years, and Friday’s announcement was to say that they have finally imaged it.
The image is shown below, from the news story on the BBC website. Although the image is blurry, it shows that Beagle 2 appears to have landed safely on the surface of Mars, and did not crash as had long been thought. Instead, the problem seems to be that not all of the four petals deployed properly; it would seem the third and fourth petals failed to open. This failure would have rendered Beagle 2’s communication system unable to send any signals to announce its presence, as part of it lay below the fourth petal on the base of the lander.
Why the fourth petal failed to open is still a mystery. It may have been due to Beagle 2 suffering some damage upon landing, or the failure of a motor. Whatever the reason, the fact that Beagle 2 did land on Mars rather than crash will come as a great comfort to those who were involved in the project; although to have come so close and for the mission to fail must also be quite frustrating.
ESA plans to send a rover to Mars in 2018, and lessons learnt from Beagle 2’s failure will hopefully ensure that the the ExoMars mission is a success.