Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mars HiRise Image: UK's ill-fated Mars Probe Beagle 2 may have been spotted

More than 11 years after UK Mars probe Beagle 2 was lost, believed crashed, space scientists are set to reveal new findings about what hapened to the spacecraft.

Mystery surrounds exactly what will be disclosed by experts from the European Space Agency and the underfunded, struggling, UK Space Agency at the English National Academy of Science, known as the Royal Society in London on Friday, but it has raised hopes that orbiting spacecraft around Mars might have located the debris of the Beagle 2.

The probe was the brainchild of the eccentric, mutton-chopped Professor Colin Pillinger, of the UK’s Open University, who died suddenly in May 2014 from a brain haemorrhage.

Beagle 2 was carried to Mars by ESA’s Mars Express which remains in orbit to this day performing valuable surveys of the planet.

Beagle was due to land on Christmas Day 2003, but nothing was ever heard from the tiny craft.

Experts later concluded that its parachute had failed in the extra thin atmosphere and it hit the ground too hard.

Months later, Colin called an impromptu press conference, convinced that he had identified a speck in a photo of the martian surface as his lost probe, but later higher-resolution imagery from a NASA orbiter showed there was nothing.

This recent announcement would indicate that this time there is hope that something really has been spotted.

The panel at Friday’s announcement will include Beagle 2’s mission manager Professor Mark Sims, Dr John Bridges of Leicester University’s Space Research Centre, the European Space Agency’s director of science and robotic exploration Alvaro Giménez, and David Parker, of Durham University and the underfunded UK Space Agency.

A recent image from the HiRise camera on the NASA MRO. 

Credit: NASA, JPL, University of Arizona

All are remaining tight-lipped about what will be revealed, but interestingly, Dr Bridges is a member of the team working with the HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is the only imager powerful enough to pick out the debris of Beagle 2, or any other probe, from orbit.

John Zarnecki, Emeritus Professor of Space Science, and Professor Pillinger’s former colleague, told reporters: “I don’t know what they will announce. All one can think of is that they might have got an image of the probe, but if Beagle 2 is in a thousand pieces, it is unlikely that we will have found the pieces.”

“When dear old Colin was alive, he imagined he could see the Beagle 2 in single pixels. None of us could see it, he was the only one who could. So if they really have found it this time, it would be wonderful.”

Professor Zarnecki, who headed the OU’s Planetary and Space Sciences department, said that finding Beagle 2 would be an important event, but there was no chance that it could still work.

He said: “The probe will be dead. There could be no battery life and it would have frozen probably. Electronic materials and components don’t like the cold of Mars very much.”

“The main thing is that it could tell us something about how and why it failed. We’re not going to get anything scientific out of it now, but anything we can learn about how and why it failed informs our designs for the future.

“One of the reasons why space missions on the whole are so successful is that we do learn from experience. It is similar to why flying by plane is so safe - we learn from failures.”

Professor Zarnecki had his own experiment on Beagle 2, a tiny device to measure temperature, air pressure, and wind-speed and direction, “like a weather station, but a fancy one”, he said.

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