European scientists said Monday they are examining an image of its Beagle 2 Mars lander, taken moments after it separated from its mothership and later was lost, that also shows an unidentified object. The mysterious blot on the photograph is being scrutinized as one of several potential reasons for the failure of the mission, Europe’s first attempt to land a probe on the Red Planet. Mission controllers said they were also considering the possibility that Beagle 2 simply crashed onto the surface of Mars because its atmosphere was less dense than expected. Scientists said they are examining photographs of the landing site that show four bright spots, dubbed the “string of pearls,” that might be the remains of Beagle 2. Beagle 2 has not been heard from since it was ejected from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter in mid-December. The 65-kilogram probe did not respond to scheduled attempts to contact it on Dec. 25 and has remained silent ever since.


Mission controllers admitted defeat last month after repeated attempts at communication and last-ditch changes to programming. Mark Sims, Beagle 2 mission manager, showed fellow scientists an image of the lander as it spun away from Mars Express, depicting both a bright spot in the shade of the side of the lander and an entirely separate object. Sims said the image was still being analysed to determine whether the marks are significant or simply a result of the imaging process. “The bright object and the glint on the side of Beagle 2 may be nothing, they may be everything” Sims said. Sims added that the “string of pearls” images may also simply show artefacts of the imaging process. One theory about the missing probe gaining credence is that Mars’ atmosphere was not as dense as expected, so Beagle 2 may simply have been going too fast for its parachute and air bags to ensure a soft landing.

That idea is supported by evidence from NASA, which also reported a less-dense atmosphere than expected on the entry of its first rover, Spirit, on Jan. 3. NASA succeeded in getting its vehicle down safely because of Spirit’s multiple chutes and robust air bag system. Both the U.S. and European missions were devised to look for geologic evidence that Mars was once a wetter place that might have been hospitable to life. While the NASA mission was aimed entirely at landing Spirit and its companion, Opportunity, on Mars, the British-built Beagle 2 was not the focus of the ESA’s mission. Instead, it wanted to get its Mars Express into orbit around the planet. “The first lesson we can learn is that landing on Mars is difficult enough if you have a dedicated mission” said Colin Pillinger, the lead scientist on the expedition. “It’s even more difficult if you have a mission where you are a hitchhiker on someone else’s ride.” Beagle 2 controllers had little choice about the timing or location of the probe’s descent onto Mars. Both were determined by the trajectory of Mars Express. Images of the landing site have revealed that there were more hazards in the area, including craters and dust storms, than anticipated. There were also huge funding differences between the European and British projects.

NASA’s cost $820 million US, while the ESA joint project cost just over $370 million. Pillinger is already searching for more funds and sponsorship for a revival of Beagle 2. He wants another mission sending more than one probe to Mars as early as 2007.

Story courtesy of Associated Press

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