Following speculation earlier this week, scientists have announced that they have found the missing British Mars lander, Beagle, on the surface of the Red Planet — although we’re still no closer to finding out what went wrong during landing.
New pictures acquired by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal what happened to Beagle, which was supposed to land on the surface of the planet on December 25, 2003. From the images, shown above, it seems that a series of deployable petals, which held the solar panels designed to power the lander, failed to unfurl properly.
Back in 2003, Beagle was supposed to make a soft landing on the surface of the planet — but a complete communications blackout meant that many scientists assumed it had been destroyed in a high-velocity impact. Now, it seems the crash was softer than expected, but something clearly still went wrong on landing. Professor Mark Sims, Beagle’s mission manager from Leicester University, explained during a press conference:
“Without full deployment, there is no way we could have communicated with it as the radio frequency antenna was under the solar panels. The failure cause is pure speculation, but it could have been, and probably was, down to sheer back 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.”
It’s clearly satisfying for the scientists to have found the craft — but its’ frustrating, too. It turns out that, according to the Reconnaissance Orbiter data, Beagle landed just 5km from the centre of its targeted touchdown zone which measured 500km by 100km. So close and yet, ultimately, so very far.
But, as Sims points out, we’re not really much closer to working out exactly what did happen over a decade ago. So for the scientists involved, the discovery raises more questions than it really answers; now, they need to work out what went wrong if they’re to learn from the mistake. [BBC]