The Beagle 2 Mars lander, lost more than a decade ago after its launch by the European Space Agency (ESA), has been spotted on the surface of the red planet. New images from the HiRise camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show that the coffee-table sized lander — which was designed to unfold "like a giant fob watch" — made it safely to the surface of the planet, but did not fully deploy.

The spacecraft was originally launched in 2003 onboard the ESA's Mars Express orbiter, and was intended to touch down on the planet on Christmas Day. The last signal from Beagle 2 suggested that it had detached safely from the orbiter and was on its way to its landing site at Isidis Planitia, a massive impact basin near the planet's equator. The lander was then supposed to announce its arrival with a nine note call-sign composed by British band Blur. Instead, scientists heard only silence for 12 years.

"It means closure to me," Beagle 2's mission manager Mark Sims told the BBC at a press conference. "Christmas day 2003 was a real disappointment ... so I've always wondered every Christmas day since what happened to Beagle 2. We've now got very good evidence that it made it successfully to the surface of Mars, which is amazing."

When asked what might have gone wrong for the lander, Sims replied: "You can think of things like structural distortion, a heavy bounce — the first bounce in the air bags or the second bag in the air bags... Maybe an air bag had a leak, got a puncture, and didn't clear away from the lander. With the image resolution we've got we don't fully know — and perhaps we will never know — exactly what happened to Beagle 2."

News of the lander's fate is somewhat bittersweet for the UK's scientific community, which mourned the death of Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist who championed the project, in May last year. Pillinger was known for galvanizing public interest in the Beagle 2 as well as drumming up funds for the shoestring mission. David Parker, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, commented that if Pillinger had been alive to see the Beagle 2 intact he'd "be putting in his grant application to go and fix it."

Planetary scientist Colin Pillinger stands next to a scale model of the Beagle 2 lander.


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