Probe sparks scientific collaborations

By | Science & Technology
Britain's Professor Colin Pillinger stands in front of a model of the Mars Express spacecraft. Credit@paultownsendviaflickr.com

The UK’s Beagle 2 spacecraft has been retrieved after 11 years undetected on the Red Planet. The probe was found partially deployed on the surfaces of Mars by clear evidence identified by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The camera produced substantial evidence for entry and descent components on the surface of Mars within the projected landing area of Isidinis Planitia located between 10°–12°N, 266°–274°W, centred at 11.6°N, 269.5°W.

The Beagle 2 is a British landing spacecraft that formed part of the European Space Agency’s 2003 Mars Express mission. Its main focus was to explore and find convincing evidence for past life on Mars or to make an assessment as whether the conditions were ever viable to sustain life. The probe weighed approximately 60 kg including entry and landing systems, encompassed scientific instruments including a Gas Analysis Package (GAP), Mössbauer and X-ray Spectrometers, Environmental Sensors, Panoramic and Wide Angle Cameras and a microscope.

An undated computer generated image of three  airbags.Credit@andreaschlegelviaflickr.com

An undated computer generated image of three
airbags.Credit@andreaschlegelviaflickr.com

Beagle investigations were expected to last 180 sols. Soils on the surface and sub-surface were to be collected by a scientific device called the Mole. Launched via the Mars Express probe, Beagle 2 separated and landed on the Martian planet while Mars Express veered into orbit. Isidinis Planitia was located at near to the ground elevation (−3600 to −3900 m MOLA) and flat (MOLA RMS slope = 0.57°), radar data suggested a smoother surface at decimetre to metre scales than the Pathfinder site with a moderate rock abundance (2–17%, mean 11%).

The Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) sequence resulted in a successful touchdown; however, the Beagle 2 went to explore other dimensions and remained undetected for 11 years.Michael Croon of Trier, Germany, was the first to observe the probe, later captured by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The former member of ESA’s Mars Express operations team at ESOC identified solid evidence of the lander and conclusive evidence for key entry and descent apparatuses the Red Planet’s surface within the expected landing area of Isidis Planitia. Re-imaging and analysis by the Beagle 2 industrial and scientific teams, the HiRISE team and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) further confirmed the discovery to have the correct size, shape, colour and dispersion to be the Beagle 2.

Moreover, Dr David Parker, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, affirms:
“This finding makes the case that Beagle 2 was more of a success than we previously knew and undoubtedly an important step in Europe’s continuing exploration of Mars.”

The recovery of the probe has been acknowledged to reflect the life’s work of Professor Colin Pillinger who passed away in May 2014 and was heavily involved in the project. His wife, Dr Judith Pillinger, who was also dedicated to the project said: “On behalf of Colin, I would like to thank everyone who joined with him to make Beagle 2 happen so many years ago and in particular the NASA MRO HiRISE team and colleagues who have continued to search for the lander. For me and his family, of course, seeing the images from Mars brings about mixed emotions…”

The Royal Society launched the Colin Pillinger International Exchanges Award in December 2014 in commemoration of the scientific contribution of Professor Pillinger. This is anticipated to open up dialogue between overseas and UK scientists, sparking scientific collaborations with researchers from across the globe.

What improvements might the retrieval of the Beagles 2 probe offer a productive science research project on Mars?

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