After more than 11 years of mystery, the European Space Agency has finally found their long lost Mars lander, the Beagle-2. The tiny spacecraft was recently spotted in high-resolution images taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft that has been in Martian orbit since 2006.
The Beagle-2 lander has been the ESA's biggest missing persons case for the past decade. The lander had been a part of the ESA's Mars Express mission, which aimed to explore the red planet by orbit and by land. After launching on a Russian Soyuz-FG/Fregat rocket in June 2003, the Beagle-2 made its way to Mars over the course of six months and was deployed above the planet's surface on December 19.
The lander was supposed to touch down six days later, on Christmas day, but ESA lost all communication with the Beagle-2 after its deployment, and subsequent searches by NASA and the ESA didn't provide any clues to its whereabouts. For nearly a decade, the space agency has been unsure if the lander even landed on Mars at all.
Now, ESA can confirm that the Beagle-2 did indeed land on December 25, 2020, and it has been patiently waiting in its resting place ever since. “Not knowing what happened to Beagle-2 remained a nagging worry. Understanding now that Beagle-2 made it all the way down to the surface is excellent news,” said Rudolf Schmidt, ESA's Mars Express project manager at the time.
Michael Croon, a former member of the Mars Express mission, along with members of the Beagle-2 industrial and scientific teams, searched through many high-resolution images taken by the Reconnaissance Orbiter. First, the team discovered what looked like counterparts to Beagle-2 in Isidis Planitia, a large impact basin in which the lander had been expected to land. This prompted the team to obtain further images from NASA, which show the Beagle-2 only partially deployed, with just three or four of its solar panels open. Nearby images show what looks to be Beagle-2's main parachute and the rear cover still attached to the pilot/drogue chute.
Mark Sims, Beagle-2's mission manager from Leicester University, tells BBC News that the ESA likely lost communication with the lander because all of its solar panels failed to deploy. "Without full deployment, there is no way we could have communicated with it as the radio frequency antenna was under the solar panels," explained Sims.
According to the ESA, the size, shape, and color of the objects in the images are consistent with Beagle-2, further confirming that they've found the lander. Plus, the lander is within its expected landing area, just three miles from the center. This is great news for the ESA, as the Beagle-2 is just a mere 2 meters wide, just at the size limit of what the cameras orbiting Mars can pick up. So way to find that little doggy, ESA.