Professor Andrew Coates, UCL
12 years after it vanished without trace during its descent to the surface of Mars, the Beagle 2 lander has been found! The probe was presumed to have crashed and been destroyed, but high-resolution images from a NASA orbiter have revealed that it did make it to the surface of the planet, after all. Graihagh Jackson has been following the story and spoke to UCL’s Andrew Coates, who helped to build and launch the bowl-shaped probe, back in 2003...
Andrew - The mission that Beagle was supposed to do was to be a lander to go to Mars, to land on the surface, look for signs of life on Mars. And so, there were a number of different instruments onboard to help with that, including images, but also x-ray fluorescence and other techniques of analysis. But it was just a fantastic project to be involved with. Successful launch, of course, in 2003 and we were all so excited about the possibility of, not only getting into orbit around Mars with the Mars Express Orbiter, but getting into the surface as well.
Graihagh - This would have been the first UK-led mission to set foot on Mars. But sadly, it was not to be. Here’s a clip from the late Colin Pillinger, the probe’s principal investigator, at a press conference...
Colin - Unfortunately, we don't have any Beagle data in the telemetry for this path, but they haven't yet checked whether the radio signal is working. But they don't have any reason to believe that it wasn’t working.
Male - Are you worried?
Colin - Not yet.
Graihagh - Beagle 2 was transported to the red planet by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter. It successfully launched the probe on Christmas day of 2003 and even sent back a picture of Beagle 2 receding into the distance and down to the dusty Martian surface. What happened was a complete mystery. Judith Pillinger, one of the Beagle team...
Judith - It would have been convenient if we’d have got the signal at the first opportunity. Everyone could have clapped and gone home and enjoyed a happy Christmas. As it is, people have to hang around a bit longer and come back for more of the same.
Graihagh - But on Friday, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a picture of what is believed to be the Beagle 2 Lander. I asked Andrew Coates about how he felt about this extraordinary news...
Andrew - Really excited! I mean, it’s just amazing. It’s like a long lost friend really because on a Christmas Day in 2003, there we were waiting for the data to come back. Unfortunately, it didn’t come. So now, it really provided some closure actually, having seen this shape, which looks like Beagle on the surface.
Graihagh - Do we know what happened?
Andrew - Not 100%. There are many things which could go wrong. There was about 75 different things in the sequence from the top of the atmosphere, going through the heat shield and then the parachute deployment and then finally, the airbags dropping onto the surface, being the right way up and the solar panels deploying. So, all that is a sort of simplified sequence of what was really several minutes of terror, as NASA would say, as we waited for the thing to actually work.
Graihagh - Is there any opportunity for quick fix - Curiosity could perhaps come on over and fix it?
Andrew - Curiosity is for much too far away. But one possibility which we could consider of course is suggesting the ExoMars landing site is actually somewhere near. And we pile some jump leads on to go and kick-start the thing, but it will be a dream to actually go and see what's happened to it or maybe just chip open that final one or two solar panels and have it transmit.
Graihagh - So, it could’ve actually collected some data?
Andrew - Yeah, that's the possibility because it got far enough that two of the solar panels, at least possibly, three deployed. Of course, it had battery power anyway, which was left over from being charged on the Mars Express Orbiter before it was separated. So, there would have been enough charge and the computer would have started and so on. So, the popup mirror would have popped up. So with that, the idea was, we’d be able to see a panorama, including the horizon of Mars.
Graihagh - Sounds like a beautiful image. What sort of lessons to be learned here?
Andrew - Well, there are a number of lessons to be learned. First of all, you wouldn't necessarily build this in the same way. It was really critical that – I mean, everything was sort of packed in like a pocket watch if you can imagine that. We don't know exactly why it didn’t deploy completely. But what we do know is that the entry, decent and landing all works. I mean historically, this makes this really important because only Russia, with the first landing on Mars, Mars III, which landed and sent data back for about 15 seconds or something like that; and then the Americans, with their various landers on Mars starting with Viking and going on through you know, up to Curiosity. So, there's Russia, America and now, the UK and Europe have landed on Mars successfully. It’s a soft landing. The only thing which didn’t happen was unfortunately, transmitting information from the surface.
Graihagh - I feel like the UK and EU deserve a pat on the back.
Andrew - Absolutely, yes. So, it makes us really proud to be from the UK, from Europe and of course, Colin Pillinger with the vision to put this together because of course, it was his vision to actually have such a lander on Mars Express. I have to say, the Mars Express Orbiter has been very successful in the over 10 years it’s been on orbit around Mars. So, Beagle’s place in history is really assured.