The Beagle had landed

An artist's impression of Beagle 2 on Mars (credit: European Space Agency)
An artist’s impression of Beagle 2 on Mars (credit: European Space Agency)

In June 2003 the European Space Agency launched a pair of vehicles to Mars. The larger of the two, an orbiter vehicle called Mars Express, is still in operation today, albeit often overlooked by the media in favour of its American cousins also in orbit around the Red Planet.  The other vehicle, piggybacking on Mars Express, was a tiny lander (quite literally, being just 39 inches across) called Beagle 2.

Designed to search for signs of life, past or present on Mars, Beagle 2 was the Mission That Almost Never Was, because at the time it was proposed, no-one outside of those wanting to build it, wanted it. And yet, even today, the science package it did eventually take to Mars is one of the most remarkable feats of science engineering put together, with capabilities that will not be repeated until NASA flies their one tonne Mars 2020 mission at the start of the next decade.

Sadly, for all its innovation and despite overcoming the odds to actually fly to Mars, Beagle 2 never achieved its goals; all contact was lost on the very day it was due to land on the Red Planet, December 25th, 2003. What happened to it remained a mystery for twelve years, but on Friday, January 16th, members of the Beagle 2 team were able to reveal that the fate of the plucky little lander was now known.

The Beagle 2 story begins in April 1997, when the European Space Agency held a meeting to discuss the possibility of flying an orbiter mission to Mars in 2003, following the failure of an earlier mission. This new mission would be called “Mars Express”, both in recognition of the exceptionally short lead-time to develop and fly it, even using instruments and systems developed for the failed mission, and for the fact that in 2003, Earth and Mars would be the closest they’ve been for some 60,000 years, allowing anything launched around the middle of that year to reach Mars in a comparatively short time.

Colin Pillinger, the man very much at the centre of Beagle 2, and who brought the mission to the public eye
Colin Pillinger, the man very much at the centre of Beagle 2, and who brought the mission to the public eye

Professor Colin Pillinger, a planetary scientist and a founder of the Open University’s prestigious Planetary Science Research Institute (since merged with the OU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy), attended the meeting together with his wife Judith, also a planetary scientist. At the time, Professor Pillinger was one of a number of scientists involved in investigating whether or not biogenic features had been discovered in a meteorite found in Antarctica, but which had originated on Mars.

This particular debate was focused on a piece of rock called ALH84001, regarded as one of the oldest pieces of the Solar System, being just over 4 billion years old, and which formed at a time when Mars was likely a warm wet planet. It had been raging for a year with no sign of abating, and Professor Pillinger had already come to the conclusion that one way to settled it would be to put a life sciences package actually on Mars.  He realised the proposed Mars Express mission presented the perfect opportunity for doing so, as did his wife. So much so, that by the time they got back to the UK, she had the perfect name for a mission designed to seek out evidence of life on Mars: Beagle 2, named for the vessel commanded by Captain Robert FitzRoy that carried Charles Darwin on his seminal voyage of discovery.

The microscopic structures revealed by a scanning electron microscope deep within a fragment of ALH84001 that suggested biogenic origins
One of the microscopic structures revealed by a scanning electron microscope deep within a fragment of ALH84001 that suggested biogenic origins

Given all of the controversy surrounding ALH84001 and the question of possible microbial life on Mars that dated back to the Viking Lander experiments of the 1990s, you’d think the ESA would jump at the opportunity to put a life sciences mission on Mars. Not so; for one thing, others also saw Mars Express as an opportunity to fly their projects to Mars and were busy lobbying. More to the point, it was held that the 6-year time frame for developing a lander mission from scratch was too short.

However, Colin Pillinger was not one to be deterred. In the UK he brought together a team from academia and industry, including Doctor Mark Sims, who was to prove pivotal in the  engineering design of the lander. With many of those involved in the nascent project initially working on it entirely in their own time, Beagle 2 rapidly developed from a series of rough designs “on the backs of beer mats”, to a proposal which, when presented to ESA managers, so impressed them, they provisionally agreed to the idea of flying a lander to Mars – but only if the UK was able to fund it. No money would be forthcoming from ESA.

Dr. Mark Sims of the University of Leiceter, who lead the engineering team responsible for Beagle 2, seen with another model of the lander (image: University of Leicester)
Dr. Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, who lead the engineering team responsible for Beagle 2, seen with another model of the lander (image: University of Leicester)

Thus began one of the most remarkable public relations exercises in annals of space history, with Beagle 2 becoming a household name in the UK, as Colin Pillinger sought to promote in on television, the radio, through newspaper and magazines, and giving public presentations. Space advocacy groups were rallied to the cause, celebrities were brought in to add their weight to things, Parliament and industry were lobbied and won over. In the end, the entire £44 million (US $70 million) was raised, with 50% coming from the UK government and the rest from the private sector.

Even so, Beagle 2’s trials were far from over. Having originally granted the lander a mass budget of 108 kilogrammes (243 pounds), with the designs close to being finalised, ESA cut the mass allowance to just 68 kilogrammes (153 kg). With the unavoidable mass of the lander’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) systems, this meant there was just 32 kg available for the necessary power and electronics systems – and the science package. Thus, Beagle 2 became an even more remarkable feat of miniaturisation.

Beagle 2 was a remarkable exercise in miniaturisation. The PAW (seen here) contained no fewer than
Beagle 2 was a remarkable exercise in miniaturisation. The PAW (seen here being examined by Dr. Sims – centre – and two of his colleagues) contained no fewer than 6 instruments and tools (image: Leicester University)

Despite so little of the lander’s mass being available for science, Beagle 2 was packed with a stunning array of instruments. It had a robot arm – the Payload Adjustable Workbench (PAW) – which carried on it 7 tiny systems and tools: a pair of stereo cameras, a 6 micrometre resolution microscope, a Mössbauer spectrometer, an X-ray spectrometer, a corer / grinder for collecting rock samples and a spot lamp. It even included a pencil-like, spring-propelled “mole”, which could “crawl” away from the lander and burrow under rocks where the corer / grinder could not reach (but which may harbour ideal ecosystems for microbial life), collect samples and then return with them to the lander for analysis. In addition, packed into Beagle 2’s main body was a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a suite of environmental sensors.

All this was fitted into a little circular lander just one metre (39 inches) across and 50 centimetres (20 inches) deep, together with the batteries needed to power the lander, the solar arrays needed to recharge the batteries once on Mars, the communications electronics, the heating system to keep the instruments at a required operating temperature, and the lander’s computer “brain”.

Beagle 2's science and electronics packages (click to enlarge)
Beagle 2’s science and electronics packages (click to enlarge)

Mars Express, with Beagle 2 on board, launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on June 2nd, 2003, and entered an initial orbit around the planet on December 20th, that year. Some 24 hours before before entering its initial orbit, Mars Express jettisoned Beagle 2 on a 6-day ballistic cruise to Mars. Reaching the planet on Christmas Day, 2003, Beagle 2 entered the Martian atmosphere.

The idea was that following atmospheric entry, Beagle 2 would slow itself through the use of parachutes. These, together with its aeroshell / heat shield  would be discarded, and a set of airbags would inflate around the lander, protecting it through a short, final free-fall phase and a bouncing landing on Mars (actually the same technique used at the start of 2004  by NASA’s MER rovers, Spirit and Opportunity).

Once stationary, the airbags would deflate, allowing the lander to open itself up and call home to announce its arrival. But no signal was ever received from Beagle 2 following its estimated touch-down time. Not on Christmas Day, nor during the days that followed. Beagle 2 was lost.

At the time, several theories were put forward about what may have happened, and it was believed that while the lander had safely entered the Martian atmosphere, for one reason or another, it had smashed itself to pieces due to a high-speed impact with the planet’s surface. However, while fingers were pointed here and there at possible causes / failures, what really happened seemed like it would forever remain a mystery.

Enter one Michael Krone, a former mission operations specialist with Mars Express. In 2014, he started examining images of the target landing ellipse for Beagle 2 – an area some 500 kilometres (312 miles) long and 100 kilometres (62 miles) wide, taken over the years by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). As he did so, he noticed a series of bright spots occurring in the same places within the landing ellipse across a number of the images which clearly were not the result of cosmic ray interference or other artefacts within the imaging system.

With these “targets of Interest” identified, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were able to take a series of additional images of the landing zone using MRO’s HiRise camera set to its highest resolution.  These images, taken at different times of the day, in turn lead to the identification of not only the lander sitting on the surface of Mars just 5 kilometres (3.2 miles) from the centre of its landing ellipse, but also the jettisoned “back cover” heat shield that protected the lander through entry into the Martian atmosphere, and possibly the discard parachute shrouds.

A HiRise image showing elements of the Beagle 2 lander on the surface of Mars (NASA JPL)
A HiRise image showing elements of the Beagle 2 lander on the surface of Mars (NASA JPL)

What’s even more remarkable is that, when enlarged, the image of the lander appears to show it not only sitting safely on the surface of Mars, but also why it failed to communicate following landing.

As shown in the images in this article, Beagle 2 is shaped like a pocket watch, and is deigned to open like one, splitting itself into two halves. One half of the vehicle contains the power systems, the communications electronics and the science systems. The other half contains four solar power array “petals” and, underneath them, the communications antenna, which forms a ring inside the lander’s “lid”. On landing, Beagle 2 should have opened itself up and then deployed the four solar “petals” to both provide it which the energy needed to recharge its batteries and to expose the antenna.

However, the HiRise image appears to show that while Beagle 2 did open up correctly, only two of the solar array petals actually deployed, leaving the antenna covered, blocking communications. And with only two of the arrays deployed (out of a total of five – the fifth being within the “lid” itself), Beagle 2 would also not have been able to properly recharge its batteries, thus foreshortening its operational life.

A close-up image of Beagle 2 on Mars, and a sketch showing its apparent configuration with only two of the solar panel "petals" deployed,  and an image of how it should appear with all of the panels deployed
A close-up image of Beagle 2 on Mars, and a sketch showing its apparent configuration with only two of the solar panel “petals” deployed, and an image of how it should appear with all of the panels deployed

The discovery of the lander is undoubtedly something of a bitter-sweet experience for all those involved in the project; on the one hand, it does demonstrate that such a small-scale, comparatively low-cost mission can actually be flown to Mars and given the right circumstances, more than likely complete its mission. On the other, it demonstrates (again) just how fickle fate can be when it comes to Mars, and that while Beagle 2 may have touched-down safely, it was never able to fulfil its potential.

Sadly, Colin Pillinger passed away in May 2014, and so will never know about the discovery of what was, in so many ways, “his” lander. Beagle 2 was a truly remarkable little vehicle, put together by a remarkable group of engineers and scientists lead by an extraordinary man. Those who knew him well are in no doubt that had the discovery come within his lifetime, he’d have been banging the table calling for Beagle 3. And he’d probably have succeeded.

The late Colin Pillinger with a model of Beagle 2
The late Colin Pillinger, CBE, FRS, FRAS, FRGS (1943-2014) with a model of Beagle 2

2 thoughts on “The Beagle had landed

    1. He really was a remarkable man (and Judith is a remarkable woman). I met them both on a number of occasions through my ex, and their enthusiasm and conviction were infectious.

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