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Has the Beagle lander been found?

December 20, 2005 By Mark Peplow This article courtesy of Nature News.

Team claims to have spotted wreckage on red planet.

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The remains of the Beagle 2 spacecraft may have been found, according to scientists who worked on the doomed Mars probe.

When Beagle separated from the European Space Agency's Mars Express craft on 19 December 2003, the team hoped that it would land six days later and begin looking for chemical evidence of past or present life on Mars. But the probe was never heard from again, and was assumed to have crashed.

A fresh look at pictures taken in April 2004 by NASA's orbiting probe, Mars Global Surveyor, has now persuaded the team that the craft could be sitting in a crater, having been disabled by a hefty whack against the crater's rim when it landed. But the fuzzy picture is scant evidence, the researchers admit, and will have to be verified by further measurements next year.

The analysis was presented to journalists at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, on 19 December, coinciding with the second anniversary of Beagle's separation from Mars Express.

Second look

The pictures were first analysed in the spring of 2004, and scientists thought at that time that the depression seen in the images was a normal crater that had been partially filled with darker, wind-blown material. But subsequent discussions have changed their minds.

"Only now does it become apparent that there is more to this crater than people thought," says Lutz Richter, a space scientist from the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne. Richter developed the burrowing 'mechanical mole' that Beagle would have used to dig up martian soil samples.

He explains that there are no known reservoirs of dark sand in the area that could have blown into the crater. "It actually looks like something has impacted and revealed subsurface material," he says.

The Beagle team thinks that the lander came down on the steep slope of the crater, which would have bounced it sideways and potentially damaged it. The airbags would have separated and rolled down into the bottom of the crater, which could be the cause of three fuzzy, dark blobs in the image. The team believe that even four months after the landing, when the pictures were taken, the airbags could have remained partially inflated.

"But it may still be a natural impact," admits Richter. "We can't be sure." The pictures are simply too fuzzy to see any detail of the craft: each pixel equates to about 50 centimetres on the planet's surface, which is about the same size as one of Beagle's solar panels.

What went wrong?

Constraints on the mass of Beagle meant that the team did not install an antenna that could send back progress reports as the probe parachuted down to the planet. So its loss has remained an infuriating mystery. The team's leading theory is that dust storms on the day of landing thinned the atmosphere, meaning that Beagle fell much faster than planned and landed with just too much of a bump to survive.

The team hopes that verifying these images could help it to understand exactly what went wrong with the mission. If Beagle actually reached the martian surface, it would suggest that the heat shield, parachute and airbag inflation system all worked, which may help in the design of future missions, says Richter.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which blasted off on 12 August, should be able to take a much better look at the site in November 2006. It carries a camera called HiRISE, whose digital images will pick up details as small as 25 centimetres across on the planet's surface.

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