I couldn’t believe it when I read the story this morning. The Beagle 2 probe has been found, and partially intact even. It’s been more than eleven years since the 2003 Christmas day launch of Beagle 2 by the European Space Agency, presumed lost forever after months of attempts at establishing communication.
Many scientists had assumed that Beagle 2 had smashed into Mars at high-velocity, destroying it completely, but photos from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) clearly show the lander made it to the ground safely. The issue seems to be that the Beagle’s deployable ‘petals’ did not unfurl completely. The petals hosted solar panels to power the lander’s systems.
“Without full deployment, there is no way we could have communicated with it as the radio frequency antenna was under the solar panels,” explained Prof Mark Sims, Beagle’s mission manager from Leicester University. “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,”
Beagle 2 was carried aboard the ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter, which is still in operation today. Costing 50 Million Pounds, around $75 Million, it was one of the least expensive interplanetary missions ever launched.
The British Space Agency tweeted about the finding all morning, and my personal favourite is this one:
— UK Space Agency (@spacegovuk) January 16, 2015
It’s probably not the best time for the UKSA to claim this title, especially since their rover played hide and seek for eleven years. If we’re following this logic, then congratulations to the Soviet Union for their 1970 crash of Mars 2 into the red planet. They were the first nation to ‘land’ a man-made object on Mars. In fact, they landed so quickly they permanently altered the Martian terrain, littering it with metal. Let’s consider missions that actually communicate with Earth a success.
Still, I can understand the relief from the UK. It does mean that their parachute and braking systems were successful, and that the rover landed safely. It could have just been a bit of bad luck. But with the ability to obtain actual information about what went wrong, they will get some closure, and the ability to learn and prepare for future engineering projects.