December 18, 2008

New Theory Lends Insight To Britain’s Mars Probe Loss

According to New Scientist, Britain's unlucky Mars probe, Beagle 2, may have met its end due to a miscalculation.

The probe, which was built to discover signs of life, disappeared in 2003 on Christmas Day.

Scientists at Queensland University believe the probe lost control during a descent due to a miscalculation of the Martian atmosphere.

Professor Colin Pillinger, team leader for Beagle 2, welcomed the new theory.

"We are as interested as anybody to find out the truth," he said.

"But until we go through the calculations in this new paper and check them against our own, we can't really comment.  What I can say is that everything that went into the Beagle 2 program was very carefully calculated."

"We still think we got it right," said Arthur Smith, chief engineer on Beagle 2.

"Of course, we will now look at our calculations again, very carefully.  If it turns out we did miscalculate, we would be very upset. But it is important for us to know, so that we can learn from it," Smith added.

Experts have always assumed that the probe suffered an equipment malfunction which led to its demise.

Now Australian engineers have proposed that the problem may have been an incorrectly calculated "spin rate."

The Beagle 2 was designed to spin as it detached from its parent, the Mars Express orbiter, then descend into the Martian atmosphere.

The ideal spin rate was difficult to calculate due to many variables, including a changing atmosphere density as the probe moved closer to the Martian surface.

Researchers working on the Beagle 2 project did not have the ability to simulate the transition between the two types of atmosphere.

The team decided to estimate the transitional force using a "bridging function," which is a type of mathematical process.  The estimate led them to calculate a spin rate of 14 revolutions per minute.

Michael Macrossan and Madhat Abdel-Jawad of the University of Queensland have been able to simulate the transition that Beagle 2 likely encountered.

The Australian scientists believe the probe was spinning too quickly.  The fast rate could have caused the probe to burn up while entering the atmosphere.

"The spin rate was just too high," said Dr Abdel-Jawad. "It counteracted the stabilization you'd expect."

Abdel-Jawad's study is published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.

Arthur Smith isn't so impressed with the theory.

"It would not be top of my list," he said.

"One thing is for sure, this is not the last we will hear about Beagle 2," added Professor Pillinger.

Pillinger is now working on the Rosetta mission for the European Space Agency. 

The spacecraft, which has been in space since 2004, has been sent to study the comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

"If this one goes pear-shaped, I shall not be best pleased," Pillinger said.


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