Beagle 2 may have been swallowed up by a deep crater as it parachuted down on Mars, scientists disclosed recently. The one-kilometre-wide crater, which could be hundreds of metres deep, lies almost in the middle of the 70 by 10 kilometre landing site near the Martian equator.
The loss of Beagle 2, which cost about $370 million to build and fly to Mars, is a setback to the European space program, but it is not be totally unexpected. The mission has been proclaimed by the European Space Agency as the least costly trip to Mars to date. The focus of the mission was is to seek evidence of life.
Its existence was only revealed by photographs of the site taken by the Nasa orbiter, Mars Global Surveyor, 20 minutes after the British probe was due to touch-down on Christmas Day. The image, released by the Beagle team today, clearly shows the crater partially shrouded in shadow, with a smaller crater nearby. Although the chances of scoring a “hole-in-one” by hitting the crater are slim, scientists are seriously considering the possibility.
Scientists chose the landing site – a flat, low-lying basin called Isidis Planitia – to minimise natural hazards. However, no area is without risk, and craters are scattered all over the Red Planet. Landing in a crater or on its rim would pose a serious threat to the disc-shaped lander, which weighed less than 70 kilograms at launch and is no bigger than a motorbike wheel. Around the crater’s edge, across a distance of about five kilometres, there would be numerous rocks and boulders. Falling among large rocks could have prevented Beagle 2 unfolding its solar panels, or burst the gas bags protecting the probe during its “bounce” landing.
Perching at a steep angle on the crater’s inner wall could also have stopped it functioning properly, while landing deep inside risked shutting off communications and vital sunlight needed for power. Beagle 2’s chief scientist Professor Colin Pillinger said at a news conference in London today: “We’d have to be incredibly accurate and incredibly unlucky to go right down this crater, which of course would not be good news.
Scientists are also looking at a number of other scenarios which may explain Beagle 2’s disappearance. They include communication problems or technical hitches preventing Beagle 2 from making contact with its temporary relay station, the orbiting Nasa spacecraft Mars Odyssey. A “Tiger Team” of experts in the operations room at the British National Space Centre in Leicester is testing the possibility of sending “blind command” signals to Beagle 2 via the American satellite.
An instruction telling Beagle 2 to reset its internal timer has already failed. Scientists had suspected that a clock problem might have been causing the probe to transmit at the wrong times. Controllers also hope to “flatten” Beagle 2’s solar panels and add more communication sessions to its transmission programme. Further attempts to get a signal from Odyssey or detect Beagle 2’s transmissions using giant radio telescopes proved fruitless last night. The 250ft Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, failed to pick up Beagle 2’s carrier signal – equivalent to receiving a mobile phone call from Mars across a distance of 93 million miles. After tonight the planet will not be in a position in the sky to allow further Jodrell Bank searches for another 20 days.
A technical problem prevented scientists using the super-sensitive Stanford University radio telescope in California as planned. For other technical reasons, it now looks unlikely that the University of Sydney’s radio telescope in Australia will be joining in the hunt. Mission controllers are pinning their hopes on the probe’s mother ship, Mars Express, making contact after it starts operating on January 4. By then Beagle 2 will have gone into an emergency mode which causes it to transmit signals more frequently. Beagle 2 has not been programmed to start communicating with Mars Express until January 6. Lord Sainsbury paid tribute to the Beagle 2 team and appeared to promise Government support for a return to Mars.