Long before October’s ExoMars lander failure, the Beagle 2 was Europe’s first attempt to land on Mars.
On Christmas Day in 2003, the Beagle 2 lander separated from the Mars Express orbiter, headed for Mars’ dusty red surface, and was never heard from again. Scientists initially thought the lander must have crashed, but a new image analysis suggests the mission came remarkably close to succeeding.
They found that although it was partially deployed, which proved that the entry and landing sequence worked as planned, the spacecraft’s antenna was left covered by a solar panel which prevented it from relaying data back to Earth.
But an “innovative research technique” called reflection analysis has shown the lander deployed at least three of its solar panels after touching down on the planet.
Researchers from De Montfort and Leicester universities used 3D software and the tool to match both simulated and real images of Beagle 2 to establish how sunlight would have reflected off the panels.
The results were then compared with original images taken by the HiRISE camera.
The techniques were as close to a definitive explanation as would be possible without landing on the planet itself, according to lead digital design researcher Nick Higgett of De Montfort University.
He said: “We are delighted to say that we have gone way beyond the original plan to reach this exciting conclusion that Beagle 2 did not crash, but landed and probably deployed most of its panels.”
Professor Mark Sims, of Leicester University, said the concept was “unique” and had produced “exciting results”.
The discovery comes about a month after another experimental probe, Schiaparelli, crashed on to the surface of Mars.
To date, only the American space agency Nasa has succeeded in getting a handful of functioning probes and rovers on to the Martian surface.
Landing on Mars has proved difficult because of its thin, yet dynamic, atmosphere. It makes for a fast and bumpy ride that can have an unexpected outcome.
The satellite pictures from the HiRISE camera were stacked on top of one another earlier this year to provide an unprecedentedly detailed map of the topography on the surface of Mars allowing scientists to view objects as small as 5cm in size.