Environment & Science

11 year mystery of the missing Beagle 2 Mars lander finally solved

This annotated image shows a bright feature interpreted as the United Kingdom's Beagle 2 Lander with solar arrays at least partially deployed on the surface of Mars.
This annotated image shows a bright feature interpreted as the United Kingdom's Beagle 2 Lander with solar arrays at least partially deployed on the surface of Mars.
NASA/HiRISE/Leicester

Listen to story

00:53
Download this story 0MB

After more than a decade of searching, a lost lander has finally been spotted on the surface of Mars, thanks to NASA's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera which is part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

A set of three images from HiRISE show that the lander known as Beagle 2 made it safely to the surface of the Red Planet but never fully deployed, hindering its ability to send messages.

“I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found on Mars," said mission manager Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, U.K. in a press release.Sims and his colleagues had high hopes for Beagle 2 when it was launched in 2003. It would search the surface of Mars for signs of past or present life.

The British built lander hitched a ride with the European Space Agency's Mars Express and successfully set out on its own on December 19.

It was scheduled to touchdown on Christmas Day, 2003 and send back a message.

Instead, there was radio silence.

"Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2," Sims said.

Just over 11 years later, NASA's eye in the sky, the HiRISE camera, found evidence of Beagle 2's fate.

HiRISE is the highest-resolution camera orbiting Mars. Still, given that the lander is only 7 feet across when deployed, it wasn't easy to spot.

Michael Croon, a former member of the Mars Express mission searched images gathered by HiRISE for clues.

Eventually he found what appeared to be the missing lander. Subsequent images led NASA and the Beagle team to concluded that the objects were most likely the partially deployed instrument.

"My jaw dropped," said JPL's Timothy Parker.

"I had stopped looking myself about four or five years ago for Beagle."

Parker said searching for something that small in HiRISE images is a painstaking task. It can take 4 to 8 hours to throughly examine one single high definition image generated by the orbiter.

It is unclear what exactly hindered the lander from fully deploying, though ESA scientists think one of the motors designed to open the lander's solar panels failed.

There's still another missing lander on Red Planet; NASA's Mars Polar Lander which was supposed to touch down in 1998.

"I'm really encouraged to go back an renew the search for Polar Lander," Parker said.

He plans on asking the HiRISE team to take some more pictures of the area where the instrument was planning to land.

"We'll just have to wait and see what we find."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that HiRISE is an orbiter. HiRISE is part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. KPCC regrets the error.