This was widely rumored since Wednesday and announced publicly yesterday, and it’s awesome: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has located the lost Beagle 2 lander, Britain’s first and so far only attempt at landing on another world. And although the pictures can’t tell us exactly what happened, they do rule out some possibilities, and confirm that whatever went wrong, the landing was actually successful.
In December of 2003, the Beagle 2 probe separated from Mars Express. The last signal heard confirmed safe separation, but nothing further was ever heard from it. That’s something every planetary lander team has on their mind, because an enormous number of things can destroy a mission at this critical stage. Did it land in the shadow of a boulder, big enough to shade the solar panels but yet too small for existing Mars orbiters to spot? (MRO would not arrive for several more years.) Did it land in a gully too narrow to allow the petals to open? Was it operating find, but unable to communicate? Or did one of the many different things that must all happen precisely on time in order to deliver it safely fail? Did the parachute fail to deploy? Did it deploy but become fouled? Was the heatshield to thin, or did it contain an undetected defect that let too much heat in? Did the backshell not separate? Did the airbags fail to deploy, leaving the probe to shatter on the surface of Mars?
The pictures rule out a lot of those possibilities, because they show it on the surface of Mars with at least two of its petals open. (This is near the limits of MRO’s abilities, so it’s hard to be sure if any other petals failed to open.) And they believe they have also found the backshell and parachute. So whatever went wrong, it went wrong after landing — the landing system performed correctly.