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Image of the Week: The Beagle had landed!

16 Jan, 2015
Beagle 2 landed

Scientists in the cleanroom, inspecting Beagle 2 instruments. Credit: Leicester University

11 years after it was officially declared “lost”, the British-made Mars lander Beagle 2 has been located on the red planet.

Beagle 2, whose name honours the HMS Beagle ship that took Charles Darwin to explore new lands, was due to land on the surface of Mars on Christmas day, 2003. Its call-signal, composed by the band Blur, should have been sent back to Earth to let scientists know that it had landed, but sadly that signal never came.

Today’s announcement that cameras aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have located Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars put an end to years of speculation about the fate of this plucky little spacecraft – the brainchild of Professor Colin Pillinger. Sadly the news of its landing, and evidence of the partial opening of its solar arrays comes too late for Pillinger to fulfil his dream of exclaiming: “The Beagle has landed!” He passed away in May last 2014, but is remembered fondly for his unique blend of enthusiasm and determination, which encouraged space academics and industry to collaborate in ways they hadn’t previously.

Beagle 2 hitched a lift to Mars aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter and was due to carry out experiments to determine the chemical composition of Mars, study the weather and climate, and search for signatures of life in an attempt to help answer the age old question “are we alone?”

The Wellcome Trust gave a grant of £2.6m to pay for the construction of a vital piece of equipment – a miniaturised mass spectrometer and 12-oven, 31-valve gas analysis package – a central part of the “mini-lab” aboard Beagle 2.

Beagle 2 Gas Analysis Package (GAP) Team. Image courtesy of Beagle 2

Beagle 2 Gas Analysis Package (GAP) Team. Image courtesy of Beagle 2

The lander was only the size of two old-style dustbin lids in a clamshell configuration and had a total mass of less than 34Kg (compare that to the 899Kg of NASA’s Curiosity rover!).

Speaking about the development process, Pillinger compared the challenge of creating a miniature spectrometer to “reducing your family saloon to a glove compartment”

While the Beagle mission didn’t manage to fulfil its scientific mission, the work done on miniaturisation of instruments such as the mass spectrometer, has benefited the research community involved in subsequent space missions.

Confirmation of its discovery on Mars means that the UK is officially a member of an elite club of nations who have landed on Mars. The Soviet Union and USA are the only others to reach the surface of Mars and the so-called “Mars Curse” – that has lead to almost two-thirds of Mars missions ending in failure – means that only the NASA-led collaborations have achieved any meaningful science on the planet.

Today we’re just excited to hear that Beagle 2 landed on Mars – perhaps it’s time to update our strap-line? The Wellcome Trust – we’re officially out of this world!

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