NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found the lost Beagle 2 probe – developed in the UK and launched on 2nd June 2003 – intact on the surface of Mars.
Beagle 2 was set to make a soft touchdown on Mars on Christmas Day 2003, by a combination of parachutes and airbags, but no radio contact was ever made with the probe. It was believed destroyed in a high-velocity impact.
High-resolution images from the NASA’s Orbiter show that not to be the case. From the pictures, it seems as though Beagle 2’s solar panel ‘petals’ failed to deploy, leaving the lander without enough power to transmit back to the European Space Agency.
Prof Mark Sims, Beagle’s mission manager from Leicester University, explained, “Without full deployment, there is no way we could have communicated with it as the radio frequency antenna was under the solar panels.”
He continued, “The failure cause is pure speculation, but it could have been, and probably was, 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.”
Sadly, Colin Pillinger, the principal investigator of the Beagle 2 project, died last year, before he could discover that his probe survived.