NASA found a long lost British spacecraft on Mars

A piece of equipment lost on Mars for more than a decade was just spotted by a NASA satellite orbiting the planet.

The Beagle 2 Mars Lander was built in the United Kingdom and sent along with the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission, and it was designed to gather pictures, soil samples and other data. It was the result of a multimillion dollar collaboration between academia and industry, with private funders putting up a considerable portion of the needed funds. The Mars Express mission launched in June 2003, and the Beagle 2 ejected from the spacecraft on Dec. 19 of that year. The lander's mission team lost contact with the Beagle 2 shortly after that. The craft was scheduled to land on Christmas Day, but until now scientists never knew if the craft had managed to land on the Red Planet.

Images of the Beagle 2 lander from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite
Images of the Beagle 2 lander from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite

"I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found on Mars," said Mark Sims, a professor at the University of Leicester who had been the Beagle 2 team's mission manager, in a report released by the U.K. Space Agency. "Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2."

After losing contact with the Beagle 2, scientists began scanning various images taken by the NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) satellite. The lander is only about two meters across, barely large enough to be seen by the satellite's camera, but scientists who examined the recent images confirm they show the craft and its parachute.

The lander had four solar panels that were supposed to unfold and expose a radio frequency antenna that would enable the craft to communicate with the team on Earth. The images suggest these panels may have only partially deployed, and that might be why the craft never made contact with the flight team, said Timothy Parker, a planetary geologist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who had been one of the scientists analyzing the satellite images. But, he added, they may never know exactly why the craft did not work.

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Poring over the images taken by the satellite images is incredibly time consuming—looking over a single image can take eight hours, Parker said. After several years of searching, the craft was identified in one of the MRO images by Michael Croon, a former member of the Mars Express operations team at ESA's Space Operations Centre, ESOC, in Darmstadt, Germany.

In spite of the fact that it was lost for so long—and probably will not be reactivated now that it is found—the Beagle 2 taught scientists to consider the project a partial success and have learned lessons they will be applying to future projects, according to the U.K. Space Agency report.

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Parker also called the Beagle 2 project "remarkable" in spite of the failed communication attempt. "It deserves some credit for landing so close" to its targeted landing spot on Mars, he said. "That is really an incredible feat. It really corroborates that the landing worked. The only thing that that didn't work was the communication."

Scientists in the United Kingdom are currently building a rover for the ESA's upcoming ExoMars flight, scheduled for 2018, according to a report released by the U.K. Space Agency. NASA's own rover has uncovered evidence that suggests the Red Planet could have supported life or might still.