Hope lives on that the Beagle has landed

The Scotsman Wed 21 December, : IAN JOHNSTONSCIENCE CORRESPONDENT
Key points
• Missing Mars probe believed found after two year search of planet’s surface
• Professor Pillinger, who led mission, believes probe landed in Martian crater
• Beagle 2 built to search for life on Mars upon landing on Christmas Day 2003

Key quote
“We have scrutinised the area in which Beagle was supposed to land, looking at pictures pixel by pixel. We have been looking for two years and this is our best bet” – Professor Colin Pillinger

Story in full THE scientist who led the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars believes he may have found where the probe landed.

After searching the surface of the planet for two years, Professor Colin Pillinger and his colleagues think they have found the craft in a crater not far from the intended landing site.

Grainy images from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft show what the scientists believe is an impact site, where Beagle had a hard landing, followed by signs of the probe bouncing around before coming to rest. There are also features that could be the craft’s airbags.

Beagle 2, named after Charles Darwin’s ship, was part of a £50 million mission to Mars in 2003 and was supposed to land on the planet on Christmas Day to search for signs of life. However, it vanished without a trace until this possible sighting.

Prof Pillinger, who is trying to get backing from space agencies for a new mission, said that, if confirmed, it showed Beagle 2 had almost worked and a new probe could be made along a similar design.

He told The Scotsman: “We have scrutinised the area in which Beagle was supposed to land, looking at pictures pixel by pixel. We have been looking for two years and this is our best bet. In that area, we have come across a small crater about 20 metres across, which is quite different from all the other such craters we have looked at.

“There’s a lot of evidence of freshly disturbed soil. On the north side of the crater is evidence of where something hit it and then went on to do a number of other impacts. At the bottom of the crater is a very symmetrical feature which matches rather well a picture we took of Beagle on Earth.

“All these pieces of evidence are very compelling. You can hardly see these as all coincidence.”

If the “hypothesis” was correct, he said it showed the probe was nearly a success.

He believes it came down too fast because dust storms weakened the already thin atmosphere, which would have normally slowed its descent.

It then “side-swiped” the crater, rather than landing on its more robust base, and damaged the lid, meaning it could not deploy its antenna to communicate with Earth. It is also possible the solar panels may not have been able to deploy.

Prof Pillinger said: “It very nearly made it and that means the majority of the technology we developed worked … we don’t have to reinvent it.”

He said a future mission could be timed to avoid the Martian dust storms, which absorb energy from the Sun, then heat and thin the atmosphere, which is only about 1 per cent as thick as the Earth’s.

Prof Pillinger admitted sceptics might argue that the images were indistinct and inconclusive, but he said: “The evidence was very, very compelling to us, otherwise we wouldn’t have shown it. We’ve had six to eight people looking at this and trying to pull it apart, and we have come to the conclusion that we cannot pull it apart.”

Next year, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft will reach the planet and its cameras are more sensitive than Global Surveyor’s; it is thought it may be able to get a much clearer picture of Beagle.

An inquiry into what went wrong in 2003 concluded that Beagle might have been slightly damaged in a hard landing caused by the thinner atmosphere or have become tangled up in its airbags or parachute, so it was unable to open. It was also suggested that the craft might have crashed more dramatically after such an incident.

The inquiry, by the European Space Agency and the British government, blamed poor management and a lack of funding for the mission’s failure, but also pointed to the heatwave theory.

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