Early this morning, the Beagle 2 spacecraft landed on the surface of
Mars at the end of a 250 million mile (400 million km), six-month trek
to the Red Planet.

Although the first attempt to use NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter to
communicate with the lander three hours later was unsuccessful,
scientists and engineers are still awaiting the best Christmas present
possible – the first faint signal to tell them that Beagle 2 has become
only the fourth spacecraft to make a successful landing on Mars.

“This is a bit disappointing, but it’s not the end of the world,”
said Professor Colin Pillinger, lead scientist for the Beagle 2 project.

“We still have 14 contacts with Odyssey programmed into our computer
and we also have the opportunity to communicate through Mars Express
after 4 January.”

The next window to receive confirmation that Beagle 2 has successfully
landed and survived its first night on Mars will be between 10 pm and
midnight (GMT) tonight, when its simple carrier signal (rather than the
tune composed by Blur) may be picked up by Jodrell Bank radio
observatory in Cheshire, UK. This has a much greater chance of success
because the giant telescope is able to scan the entire side of the
planet facing the Earth.

Another overflight by Mars Odyssey will take place around 18.15 GMT
tomorrow evening, followed by daily opportunities to contact Beagle 2
via the Mars Odyssey spacecraft and the radio telescopes at Jodrell Bank
and Stanford University in the United States.

There are several possible explanations for the failure of Odyssey to
pick up Beagle 2’s signal. Perhaps the most likely is that Beagle 2
landed off course, in an area where communication with Mars Odyssey was
difficult, if not impossible. Another possibility is that the lander’s
antenna was not pointing in the direction of the orbiter during its
brief passage over the landing site. If the onboard computer had
suffered a glitch and reset Beagle 2’s clock, the two spacecraft could
be hailing each other at the wrong times.

The Beagle 2 lander entered the thin Martian atmosphere at 2.47 GMT
today. Travelling at a speed of more than 12,500 mph (20,000 km per
hour), the probe was protected from external temperatures that soared to
1,700°C by a heat shield made of cork-like material.

As friction with the thin upper atmosphere slowed its descent, onboard
accelerometers were used to monitor the spacecraft’s progress. At an
altitude of about 4.5 miles (7.1 km), Beagle’s software was to order
the firing of a mortar to deploy a pilot parachute, followed one minute
later by deployment of the 33 ft (10 m) diameter main parachute and
separation of the heat shield.

At a few hundred metres above the surface, a radar altimeter was to
trigger the inflation of three gas-filled bags. Cocooned inside this
protective cushion, Beagle 2 was expected to hit the rust-red surface at
a speed of about 38 mph (60 km/h). As soon as the bags made contact with
the surface, the main parachute was to be released so that the lander
could bounce away unhindered. Like a giant beach ball, the gas bag
assembly was expected to bounce along the surface for several minutes
before coming to rest at 2.54 GMT.

Finally, a system of laces holding the three gas-bags onto the lander
was to be cut, allowing them to roll away and drop Beagle 2 about 3 ft
(1 m) onto the surface. The whole descent sequence from the top of the
atmosphere to impact was to take less than seven minutes.

The “pocket watch” design of Beagle 2 ensured that it would turn
upright irrespective of which way up the little lander fell. After the
onboard computer sent commands to release the clamp band and open the
lid, the way would be clear to deploy the four, petal-like solar panels
and initiate charging of the batteries.

Confirmation of the successful landing would be provided by a musical
“beeping” signal of 9 digitally encoded notes, composed by
British rock group Blur. This signal should be picked up by Mars Odyssey
as it passes overhead and then relayed to Earth.

Beagle 2 was targeted to land within an ellipse, 30 km long and 5 km
wide, on Isidis Planitia, a large lowland basin near the Martian
equator. However, the exact location of the landing site depended on
factors such as the angle of descent and wind speed.

The landing site (11°N, 90°E) was chosen for its low elevation, since a
greater depth of atmosphere would assist the parachute in braking the
lander’s descent. Its equatorial location also means that temperatures
are warmer, minimising the amount of insulation (and hence mass) needed
to protect the lander from the cold Martian night. The relatively flat
site was also thought to be neither too dusty nor too rocky to threaten
a safe landing (but rocky enough to be interesting for the experiments).

Sunset at the Mars landing site today was at 07:15 GMT (18:35 local
solar time). Beagle 2 is scheduled to shut down and conserve power
during the cold Martian night, when temperatures may plummet to -80C.
Sunrise will take place at 20:02 GMT on Mars (07:02 local solar time).

Beagle 2 was launched with the European Space Agency’s Mars Express
orbiter on 2 June 2003.

Beagle 2 was named to commemorate Charles Darwin’s five-year voyage
around the world in HMS Beagle (1831-36). Its main objective is to
search for signs of life – past or present – on the Red Planet.

By the time it arrived on the Martian surface, Beagle 2 weighed 33 kg,
including 9 kg of science instruments. This is the most ambitious
experiment package ever flown in space.

Peter Barratt
Mobile: +44 (0)787 9602899
Email: peter.barratt@pparc.ac.uk