Lost since 2003, the UK-led Beagle-2 Mars lander has finally been discovered on the Martian surface by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Analysis of the images revealed that the lander survived its Dec. 25, 2003 touchdown, partially deploying on the surface of the Red Planet. No signal was received from the lander following its expected landing time, and the robotic explorer was feared destroyed.
Beagle-2 was launched on the June 2, 2003, hitching a ride with ESA's Mars Express mission with a mandate to detect clues as to the presence of life on the Martian surface. The lander (along with other debris believed to be related to the spacecraft's descent process) was found within the expected landing area for the probe, an impact crater designated Isidis Planitia, near to the Martian equator. This further strengthened the case that the images were indeed shots of the final resting site of the Beagle-2.
"We are very happy to learn that Beagle-2 touched down on Mars," states Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. "The dedication of the various teams in studying high-resolution images in order to find the lander is inspiring."
Three sets of images captured by the high-resolution camera mounted aboard NASA's MRO suggest that the Beagle-2 successfully executed its atmospheric entry, descent and landing procedure, coming to rest gently on the surface of the Red Planet. At only 7 ft (2.1 m) across, detection of the failed robotic explorer pushed the high-res camera to the edge of its capabilities. Analysis of the images suggest that the lander's drogue chute is still attached to the lifeless explorer, and that the lander was able to open one to three of its four solar panels.
The lander's inability to deploy all of its solar panels explains why it was unable to communicate upon reaching the surface of the Red Planet. The design of Beagle-2 required full deployment in order to uncover the radio antenna needed to transmit a response to mission controllers back on Earth.
Whilst there is no chance of fixing the long-dead spacecraft, Beagle-2's designers, engineers and the many thousands of people who waited on Christmas Day for a signal from the robotic pioneer will hopefully feel a sense of closure in the knowledge of its final resting place.