Images Indicate U.K.’s Long-lost Mars Lander Touched Down Intact


PARIS — The U.K. Space Agency on Jan. 16 said the Beagle 2 Mars lander, which disappeared 11 years ago and was presumed to have crashed on Mars, has been found on the martian surface in a condition suggesting a successful touchdown and partial deployment.

The announcement was made following a lengthy analysis, over several years, of images from Mars orbiters, notably NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter featuring the HiRISE camera.

The search has been led by Michael Croon of Germany, who in 2002 was with the European Space Agency’s ESOC operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, and a member of ESA’s Mars Express team.

This annotated image shows where features seen in a 2014 observation by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been interpreted as hardware from the Dec. 25, 2003, arrival at Mars of the United Kingdom's Beagle 2 Lander. Images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been interpreted as showing the Beagle 2 did make a soft landing and at least partially deployed its solar panels taken June 29, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/University of Leicester
A wide-field Image from the HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/University of Leicester

Beagle was carried to Mars orbit aboard Mars Express and then jettisoned toward the surface, where it was presumed to have crashed Dec. 25, 2003. Mars Express continues to operate, imaging the red planet’s surface.

Three HiRISE images in particular, with the sun at different angles permitting Croon and others to identify features on the surface, have led to the conclusion that Beagle landed intact after a successful parachute deployment and removal of its rear cover.

“This finding makes the case that Beagle 2 was more of a success than we previously knew and undoubtedly an important step in Europe’s continuing exploration of Mars,” U.K. Space Agency Chief Executive David Parker said in a statement.

Beagle needed to fully deploy its solar panels to expose the antenna designed to transmit and receive data. A partial deployment would explain why nothing was heard from the lander after it separated from Mars Express.

“The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars,” said Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, who was head of Beagle 2’s flight operations team. “The highly complex entry, descent and landing sequence seems to have worked perfectly and only during the final phases of deployment did Beagle 2 unfortunately run into problems.”

The disclosure comes just weeks after ESA member governments, with Britain among the major contributors, agreed to provide sufficient financing to complete construction of a two-launch ExoMars program with Russia, which includes a small entry, descent and landing system and a larger rover vehicle for launch in 2016 and 2018, respectively.