Spaceflight Insider

New analysis yields clues to fate of Beagle 2

Artist's concept of Beagle 2 lander on Mars. Image credit: ESA

Artist’s concept of the Beagle 2 lander on Mars. Image Credit: ESA

Scientists have discovered new clues about the fate of the British-made Beagle 2 Mars lander, thanks to a new research technique. The probe was discovered on the surface of Mars in November 2014 using images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), but questions remained about what had caused its failure to contact Earth. The new findings indicate that Beagle 2 landed on Mars and deployed at least three of its four solar panels. Failure of one the four panels to fully deploy may have interfered with the lander’s ability to send and receive data transmissions.

Beagle 2 was part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express mission launched in June 2003. Beagle 2 was successfully ejected from the Mars Express spacecraft on December 19, 2003, but the lander failed to send a scheduled signal that it had successfully landed on the Martian surface on December 25. Although Beagle 2 was detected by MRO’s HiRISE camera in 2014, the exact configuration of the lander on Mars was unknown due to the lander’s small size and the camera’s resolution.

Professor Mark Sims, former Beagle 2 Mission Manager and Professor of Astrobiology and Space Instrumentation at the University of Leicester, developed the concept of “reflection analysis” – matching simulated and real images of Beagle 2. The technique is based on simulations of possible configurations of the lander on the Martian surface and comparing the light of Sun reflected by the simulated lander with raw images from the HiRISE camera at a number of different Sun angles.

Image showing simulated heat shield, real images of heat shield and simulated image using HiRISE pixels. Image Credit: De Montfort University/University of Leicester/Beagle 2/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Image showing the simulated heat shield, real images of the heat shield, and the simulated image using HiRISE pixels. Image Credit: De Montfort University/University of Leicester/Beagle 2/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Nick Higgett, leader of the MA Digital Design group at De Montfort University (DMU), along with 3-D specialists Teodora Kuzmanova and Dr. Eric Tatham, used 3-D software to model the scene in three dimensions. The simulation was done by adjusting the position of the Sun as well as the orientation and angle of Beagle 2, and then unfolding the four solar panels at different angles until they found the best match with the original NASA images

“This unique University collaboration between space scientists and digital designers allowed the reflection analysis concept to be put into practice and tested and ultimately produce these exciting results,” said Professor Mark Sims.

The group’s findings indicate that 3 of Beagle 2′s solar panel’s successfully unfolded and the fourth may have only partially deployed. This may have blocked its antenna, interfering with the lander’s ability to transmit data back to Earth. The lander may have been collecting data for some time.

“It may have worked for hundreds of days depending on how much dust was deposited on the solar panels and whether any dust devils were cleaning the panels – as happened with NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers,” Sims told BBC News. “One possibility is that it could still be working today, but it is extremely unlikely and I doubt that it is,” he added.

“We are delighted to say that we have gone way beyond the original plan to reach this exciting conclusion that Beagle 2 did not crash, but landed and probably deployed most of its panels. Hopefully, these results help to solve a long-held mystery and will benefit any future missions to Mars,” said Nick Higgett, leader of the DMU team.

Beagle 2 launched as part of the Mars Express mission atop a Soyuz FG / Fregat booster from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on June 2, 2003. The lander was released from the Mars Express orbiter on a ballistic trajectory toward Mars on December 19, 2003. Beagle 2 drifted for six days and entered the Martian atmosphere at approximately 12,427 miles per hour (20,000 kilometers per hour) on December 25, 2003. The lander’s purpose was to search for a sign of life on Mars, either past or present.

Video courtesy of University of  Leicester



Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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