Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
A probe that was scheduled to land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003, but disappeared several days prior, has been found intact on the surface of the Red Planet, according to BBC News reports published Friday.
Beagle2, which was the brainchild of the late Colin Pillinger when he was serving as a professor of interplanetary science at the Open University, was transported to Mars on board the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.
It was scheduled to make a soft landing on the planet’s surface, but ESA officials lost contact with it after it separated from its mothership, six days before its scheduled landing.
An investigation found that Beagle2 may have burned up in the atmosphere, but as early as 2005, Pillinger told media outlets that he had spotted the vehicle in NASA photos. Now, the BBC reports that high resolution images taken by the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appear to pinpoint the landing location of the probe, and show that it is still in one piece.
Furthermore, the pictures seem to tell the tale of what actually happened to Beagle2, according to the British news agency. The probe’s design used a series of deployable “petals” that were mounted to its solar panels. Based on the images, it appears as though the system did not unfurl fully, which would have prevented communication with ground control.
“Without full deployment, there is no way we could have communicated with it as the radio frequency antenna was under the solar panels,” Professor Mark Sims, Beagle’s mission manager at Leicester University, told BBC News.
“The failure cause is pure speculation,” he added, “but it could have been… down to sheer bad luck – a heavy bounce perhaps distorting the structure as clearances on solar panel deployment weren’t big; or a punctured and slowly leaking airbag not separating sufficiently from the lander, causing a hang-up in deployment.”
The images and data provided by the NASA orbiter suggest that Beagle2 was extremely close to hitting its target, missing the center of its planned landing area by just five kilometers. It was to touch down in a 500km by 100km ellipse located on Isidis, a flat, near-equatorial plain.
Pillenger, the catalyst for the Beagle2 mission, passed away last May at the age of 70 after suffering a brain hemorrhage and falling into a coma while at his Cambridge home. His family said that he later died at Addenbrooke’s Hospital without regaining ever consciousness.
“Colin was always fond of a football analogy,” said Dr Judith Pillinger, his wife and a member of the Beagle2 team. “No doubt he would have compared Beagle2 landing on Mars, but being unable to communicate, to having ‘hit the crossbar’ rather than missing the goal completely.”
“Beagle2 was born out of Colin’s quest for scientific knowledge,” she added. “Had he known the team came so close to scoring he would certainly have been campaigning to ‘tap in the rebound’ with Beagle3 and continue experiments to answer questions about life on Mars.”
Follow redOrbit on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.