Beagle 2, the Lost Mars Lander

Beagle 2 was an unsuccessful lander that was part of the 2003 European Space Agency (ESA) Mars Express Mission.  Initially, the lander was mounted on the top deck of the Mars Express Orbiter. It left this position six days before its planned entry into the Martian surface and took a course to land on Mars. It was never heard of again. The rest of the Mars Express mission has been successful. Here are some interesting fasts about it.

Mars Express OrbiterMars Express Orbiter Photo Source

Beagle 2 got its name from HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on two voyages to explore the world.  Astronomers named it so because they hoped that just as Charles Darwin’s voyages on the HMS Beagle led to a deeper understanding of life on earth and gave birth to the theory of evolution and natural selection, the Beagle 2 lander would be the breakthrough to understanding life on Mars. Unfortunately, this never came to be.

The UK government though ESA was the main supporter of the Beagle 2 mission. Other supporters included several companies and Universities. Prof. Colin Pillinger of the Open University in the UK was the lead mission scientist.

Professor Colin Pillinger’s

Professor Colin Pillinger’s Photo Photo Source

Beagle 2 Lander Mission Objectives

The Beagle 2 lander was designed to explore the surface of the red planet. It was supposed to study the geology of the landing site and determine the mineral composition, the geochemistry and oxidation state.

The second objective was to study the atmosphere and help us learn more about the weather and climate on Mars.

It was also supposed to search for signs of past or present life on Mars and capture stereoscopic images of the landscape.

Beagle 2 Lander Components

To achieve its mission objectives, the Beagle 2 Lander was equipped with the necessary equipment and mechanisms as follows:

It had a robotic sampling arm with a mole-like Planetary Undersurface Tool (PLUTO) that was designed to move on the surface, burrow into the ground to collect subsurface rock and soil samples and return the samples to the lander for analysis.

To search for signs of life, the lander had an inbuilt Gas Analysis Package (GAP), a sensitive mass spectrometer that would test the samples for the presence of methane, which is a sign of active biological mechanisms and life.

It also had sophisticated cameras to take stereoscopic photos of the landscape and environmental sensors to study the weather and climatic conditions.

How Beagle 2 Was Supposed To Land

Beagle 2 was scheduled to make a safe descent and land on the Martian surface in December 2003. Its intended landing site was the Isidis Planitia, a vast flat basin that overlies the boundary between the ancient highlands and the northern plains of Mars.

Immediately after it landed, it was programmed to announce its arrival by playing a burst of music. It was then supposed to embark on a 180 days mission in search of life on Mars. An extended mission of one Martian year (687 Earth days) was also considered possible.

Beagle 2 As It Would Have Appeared on Mar’s Surface

Beagle 2 As It Would Have Appeared on Mar’s Surface Photo Source

Beagle 2 Declared Lost

After its separation from the Mars Express Orbiter six days before its scheduled entry into the Martian atmosphere, Beagle 2 went silent. It never contacted NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft as expected. Attempts to make contact with the lander continued for a month. When no signals were received, it was declared lost. No communication has been received from Beagle 2 ever since and its fate remains a mystery.

The Beagle 2 failure is not unusual in the history of Mars exploration. As of 2010, there had been 38 launches to Mars and only 19 of them had been successful.

What Happened to Beagle 2 on Mars?

After it was declared lost, a commission of inquiry on Beagle 2 was set up to investigate the cause of the failure and a report was released in August 2004.

The commission did not come up with any concrete reason for the failure but it came up with a list of possible causes.

According to the report, the failure may have occurred due to an unusually thin atmosphere caused by dust storms at the landing site, a gasbag puncture, heat shield damage, electronic problems, a broken communication antennae, or collision with an unknown object.

The Search for Beagle 2 Still Goes On

Until now, the search for the lost Beagle 2 lander continues mainly through studies of images captured at and around the intended landing site.

In 2005, professor Pillinger the mission’s lead scientist released images captured by the Mars Global Surveyor. After special processing to reveal finer details, these images suggested that Beagle 2 may have impacted in a crater near the intended landing site. These images suggested it almost landed as intended but failed to contact Earth. One possibility is that it may have fallen too hard damaging the communication instruments onboard.

However, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera examined this crater in 2007 and did not find any signs of Beagle 2.

Is There Hope of Finding Beagle 2?

Since no communication has been received from the lander since it went out of contact, there is no way to find out whether and where it landed, whether it landed at all or whether it landed as scheduled but failed to communicate due to another failure.

If the entry, descent and landing (EDL) sequence were nominal, we could search the region where it was supposed to land. Since Beagle 2 had bright parachutes, they would still be visible even after all these years.

Detailed images of Mar’s surface captured and transmitted to Earth by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter(MRO) could provide clues on what happened to this lander.