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Posts Tagged ‘Beagle 2’

New images of the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2 have emerged recently, suggesting that it came closer to success than has long been thought. These new images have been analysed more thoroughly and carefully than previous images of Beagle 2, and with the help of a computer simulation it is being suggested that Beagle 2 did not crash land. Instead, this team led by Professor Mark Sims of Leicester University are arguing that Beagle 2 deployed, but not completely correctly. They suggest that, due to not deploying correctly, that it may well have done science for a period of about 100 days, before shutting down due to lack of power. They even suggest that there is a very slim possibility that it is still working.

I do have to take issue, however, with the way┬áthis story is worded on the BBC website. It implies that we now know, with certainty, that Beagle 2 operated for some period on the surface of Mars. This is not true. One study has argued that it did. One swallow does not make a summer. This particular team’s analysis and study will need to be looked at by others before we can say with any reasonable certainty that Beagle 2 survived its landing.

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New images of Beagle 2 taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been analysed by a computer model, suggesting it may have actually worked for a short period of time.

As with any suggestion which flies in the face of conventional wisdom, this claim will need to be checked and followed up by others. But, if the evidence is sufficiently strong that Beagle 2 did not crash, then it will come as a relief to those who worked on it and have long felt that it failed in a crash. Sadly, even if it did work, we have not received any data back from it; and that is not going to change.

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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.



An artist's impression of the Mars Express spacecraft approaching Mars. Beagle 2 is the brown object on the upper side of Mars Express, above the communication dish and between the solar panels.

An artist’s impression of the Mars Express spacecraft approaching Mars. Beagle 2 is the brown object on the upper side of Mars Express, above the communication dish and between the solar panels.





An artist's impression of Beagle 2 as it should have been deployed on the surface of Mars.

An artist’s impression of Beagle 2 as it should have been deployed on the surface of Mars.



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.



The image taken of Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE. The image suggests that not all of the petals opened, and therefore the communication antenna could not work.

The image taken of Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE. The image suggests that not all of the petals opened, and therefore the communication antenna could not work.



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.

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