One of the mysteries of Mars exploration may have been solved. Scientists at the University of Leicester and De Montfort University have used a new imaging technique based on 3D modeling technology to uncover the fate of Britain's Beagle 2 lander. According to the team, the unmanned probe didn't crash, but landed successfully and became operational, though its radio antenna failed to deploy correctly.

Created by the Open University and the University of Leicester, Beagle 2 was Britain's first interplanetary mission. Built on a shoestring budget, it rode along on ESA's Mars Express orbiter, which launched on June 3, 2003. It detached from the orbiter six days before reaching the Red Planet, then carried out an autonomous deceleration and landing sequence on December 25, but all contact was lost as the lander failed to make radio contact with the mothership.

The fate of Beagle 2 remained a mystery until 2014 when NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) returned high resolution images that showed Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars. Analysis of the images showed the lander had apparently only deployed two of its four solar panels and the most likely scenario was that the craft hit the ground harder than planned and became tangled in its parachute or airbags, so it couldn't open up properly – if it was in any shape to do so after the impact.

According to Professor Mark Sims, former Beagle 2 Mission Manager and Professor of Astrobiology and Space Instrumentation at the University of Leicester, that explanation needs some major revision. Using a new imaging technique called "reflection analysis," his team took a fresh look at Beagle 2 and concluded that it did, in fact, land safely, that it deployed three or even all four of its solar panels, and very likely started to explore the planet.

Developed by Sims, reflection analysis is essentially a way to reverse engineer an image to determine what created it, even if it's fairly low resolution. It involves creating virtual models of an object in various configurations, subjecting them to virtual sunlight from different angles, then comparing the resulting simulated images with the real ones until a match comes up. It seems simple, but Sims had to go to specialists at De Montfort University to see if it could work.

Nick Higgett leader of the De Montfort University Simulation team says that to carry out the analysis, commercially available software used for 3D modeling, animation, visual effects, and simulation design was used to create a digital 3D model of Beagle 2 that was accurate enough to properly reflect virtual sunlight and could be manipulated into different configurations it might have taken on in the landing. In addition, the software had to simulate the high resolution cameras on the MRO to reproduce the images sent back to Earth.

"The visual comparison between the real and simulated images could then begin to identify which landing configuration (1, 2, 3 or 4 deployed solar panels) was the best fit," says Higgett. "This was originally a proof of principle project. However, we are delighted to say that we have gone way beyond this original plan to reach this exciting conclusion that Beagle 2 did not crash but landed and probably deployed most of its panels. Hopefully these results help to solve a long held mystery and will benefit any future missions to Mars."

According to Sims, exactly what happened to Beagle 2 may never be known, but the likely explanation is something went wrong with the radio antenna used to connect the lander with Mars Express. Either one of the solar panels didn't deploy and the antenna was trapped, or the panel didn't deploy properly and interfered with the antenna – a bit like those cabinets where you have to close the doors in a particular sequence or they won't fit properly.

One intriguing point is that if three or all of the solar panels deployed, Beagle 2 would have had enough power to activate and carry out its task of seeking life on the Red Planet, and may even be operating today.

Line drawing of Beagle 2's orientation and tilt(Credit: University of Leicester/De Montfort University)

"It may have worked for hundreds of days depending on how much dust was deposited on the solar panels and whether any dust devils were cleaning the panels – as happened with Nasa's Mars Exploration Rovers," said Sims in a BBC interview. "One possibility is that it could still be working today – but it is extremely unlikely and I doubt that it is."

The team says that if funding is available, it may be possible to carry out a more detailed analysis of the landing site.

In the video below Sims discusses the Beagle 2 mission.

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