It is 11 years since it captured the imagination of a nation. Now, space probe Beagle 2 is creating excitement all over again.
The UK Space Agency has announced it will be giving an ‘update’ on the ill-fated British-led mission to Mars on Friday – fuelling speculation that the dustbin lid-sized probe has finally been found.
A speaker list that includes the mission’s project manager, a scientist who help choose Beagle 2’s landing site and the European Space Agency’s director of science, has only added to the mystery.
Leading space scientist Professor John Zarnecki said that finding the probe would be ‘wonderful’.
The brainchild of Colin Pillinger, a maverick scientist with a gift for PR, and built on a shoestring budget, Beagle 2 was designed to search for signs of life, past or present on the Red Planet.
Britpop band Blur composed the probe’s call sign and the ‘test card’ used to calibrate probes cameras was painted by Damien Hirst.
Due to land on Christmas Day, 2003, the £50million spacecraft was last seen heading for Mars six days earlier on December 19, 2003.
The Blur song was never relayed to Earth, the tiny craft was officially declared lost in January 2004 and nothing has been heard from it since.
Experts concluded it had fallen foul of an extra-thin Martian atmosphere – leading to it travelling too fast on its approach for its parachute to deploy properly and hitting the ground too hard.
However, those involved refused to give up hope.
Dr Mark Sims Beagle 2’s mission manager and one of the speakers at Friday’s three-hour-long press conference, said at the time: ‘My nightmare is that Beagle is sat there on the surface of Mars still trying to talk to us and, for the sake of a broken cable, it’s not.’
Scientists operating the HiRise camera on Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will take part in the press conference.
The HiRise camera can scan the surface of Mars in high enough detail to spot missing spacecraft and has already helped to locate the twin Viking landers which touched down on Mars in the Seventies.
They have been searching for Beagle 2 for several years.
In 2005, Professor Pillinger called an impromptu press conference, convinced that a speck on a photo of the surface of Mars was his lost probe.
Later, higher-resolution imagery from Nasa showed he had been mistaken.
He never lived to discover what had happened to his probe.
On his death last year following a brain haemorrhage, Professor Pillinger, 71, was described as ‘an archetype eccentric professor’ – and the Beagle 2 mission as an ‘heroic failure’.
Last night, leading scientists said that the probe may, just may, have been spotted by craft orbiting Mars.
Professor Zarnecki, a former Open University colleague of Professor Pillinger, said: ‘I don’t know what they will announce. All one can think of is that they might have got an image of the probe.
‘When dear old Colin was alive, he was seeing Beagle in single pixels.
‘None of us could see it – he was the only one who could. So if they really have found it this time, it would be wonderful.’
The professor, who had his own experiment on board Beagle 2, a tiny weather station, said that while there is no chance the probe could still work, any find could provide important information about why the mission failed.
Professor Zarnecki said: ‘One of the reasons why space missions on the whole are so successful is that we do learn from experience. It is similar to why flying by plane is so safe – we learn from failures.’
Dr Lewis Dartnell, a UK space agency researcher, said that if Beagle 2 is still fairly intact, it would be visible to craft orbiting Mars.
Fragments of wreckage, however, would be much harder to spot.
The UK Space Agency will only say that Friday’s announcement concerns Beagle 2’s landing – and will ‘definitely be of interest’.