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Mystery of Beagle 2 solved

An artists impression issued by the European Space Agency in 2002 showing how the Beagle 2 landing craft looked Photo: PA Wire

Lost on another planet for 11 years, this most daring piece of British engineering has now been found.

Pictures from Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show that Beagle 2 made it to the surface of Mars in one piece and two of its solar panels even deployed. But then it never managed to get in touch with home.

Frustratingly, it seems that the lander could have been recording data on its descent phase and might even have taken pictures and made scientific measurements on the ground.

Indeed, it might still be going. But because it cannot communicate with Earth, we will probably never know what it might have found.

Nasa's Mars Orbiter traced the probe on Mars' surface Credit: PA Wire

Beagle 2 was the brainchild of the late space scientist Colin Pillinger. He raised almost £50m for the mission by keeping it in the public eye - the colour calibration chart was painted by Damien Hirst and the lander's call sign was a tune written by Britpop band Blur.

Named after HMS Beagle, the ship that took Charles Darwin on his expedition to the Galapagos Islands in the 19th century and led him to develop his ideas around evolution by natural selection, Pillinger's mission was meant to look for signs of life on Mars.

After separating from the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission on Christmas Day in 2003, Pillinger and his team waited for the signal that their plucky lander had made it safely to the surface of the red planet. And they waited.

Professor Colin Pillinger with a model of the orbiter Mars Express in 2003. Credit: PA Wire

Eventually, people gave up and the mission was declared lost.

Today's elation among the Beagle 2 scientists was tinged with sadness that Pillinger, who died last year, never knew the fate of his spacecraft. He would no doubt have been overjoyed to see Beagle 2 in once piece if he had been alive today.

Pillinger's colleague and space scientist at Leicester University, Mark Sims, also told me that, given today's results, the unstoppable Pillinger would probably also have started putting together a grant application to send another robot out to Mars to try and revive his lander.

"Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2," says Sims. "My Christmas day in 2003, alongside many others who worked on Beagle 2, was ruined by the disappointment of not receiving data from the surface of Mars.

"To be frank I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars. The images vindicate the hard work put in by many people and companies both here in the UK and around Europe and the world in building Beagle 2," he added.

Though Beagle 2 failed its primary scientific mission, it arguably did a lot to encourage people both inside and outside science to become interested in space science and was the precursor to the modern interest in watching space missions happen in real time, such as the recent landing of Philae on the Comet 67P.

The image shows comet 67P acquired by the Philae lander in 2014 Credit: PA Wire

Dr Judith Pillinger, Prof. Colin Pillinger's widow who was also involved with the Beagle 2 mission, said: “On behalf of Colin, I would like to thank everyone who joined with him to make Beagle 2 happen so many years ago.

"For me and his family, of course, seeing the images from Mars brings about mixed emotions. An immense sense of pride is inevitably tinged with great sadness that Colin is not able to share the findings with us.

"Colin was always fond of a football analogy. No doubt he would have compared Beagle 2 landing on Mars, but being unable to communicate, to having ‘hit the crossbar’ rather than missing the goal completely.

"Beagle 2 was born out of Colin's quest for scientific knowledge. Had he known the team came so close to scoring he would certainly have been campaigning to 'tap in the rebound' with Beagle 3 and continue experiments to answer questions about life on Mars.”

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