December 20, 2005

Failed Beagle 2 probe “found” on Mars – scientist

By Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) - The scientist behind the lost 2003
Beagle 2 mission to Mars said on Tuesday the craft may have
been spotted in NASA pictures which indicate the project very
nearly worked.

Beagle 2, named after the ship Charles Darwin sailed in
when he formulated his theory of evolution, was built by
British scientists for about 50 million pounds ($90 million)
and taken to Mars aboard the European Space Agency's orbiter
Mars Express.

It was due to land in a crater on the red planet in a
bouncing ball of airbags and begin looking for signs of life on
Christmas Day, 2003. But it lost contact with Earth once it
separated from the mother ship in mid-December.

Colin Pillinger told the BBC he thought the craft may have
hit the ground too hard, damaging its instruments, because the
atmosphere was thinner than usual due to dust storms.

Pictures taken by NASA's orbiting Mars Global Surveyor
spacecraft may contain clues about Beagle's final seconds.

"There is a lot of disturbance in this crater, particularly
a big patch on the north crater wall which we think is the
primary impact site," Pillinger said.

"There are then other features around the crater consistent
with the airbags bouncing around and finally falling down into
the middle. Then, when you cut the lace, the airbags fall apart
giving three very symmetrical triangles."

Four roughly circular features to the right of the 'airbag'
markings could be Beagle's unfolded solar panels, he said.

Pillinger said the findings, if correct, showed the project
came very close to working but had failed because it had landed
in a "sideways motion" instead of a "horizontal mode."

"That may have damaged the lander so the lid didn't open
properly and didn't release the antennae, so we couldn't get
the signal," he said.

The European Space Agency and British government, which
jointly commissioned an inquiry into what went wrong, said in
May 2004 that no one was to blame for the mission's failure.