Brussels, 20 Dec 2005
The Beagle 2 probe, part of the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission, was designed to search for signs of life on the surface of the Red Planet. However, ever since it disappeared without a trace during its descent on 25 December 2003, the team that built Beagle 2 has been searching for the probe itself.
Now, after two years of painstaking, pixel-by-pixel analysis of images covering a 140 square kilometre area around the planned landing site, the team believes it has found the missing probe in an old crater bowl.
Colin Pillinger, lead scientist on the Beagle 2 mission, accepts that each of the individual objects observed in the crater could be attributed to other phenomena, but believes it is highly unlikely that coincidence could explain the presence of so many unusual features 'within 20 metres of each other'.
Professor Pillinger told the BBC: 'We have had the pessimists round saying 'we've already seen something like that'. But they haven't seen them all together. There is a lot of disturbance in this crater, particularly a big patch on the north crater wall which we think is the primary impact site.
'There are then other features around the crater consistent with the airbags bouncing around and finally falling down into the middle. Then, when you cut the lace, the airbags fall apart giving three very symmetrical triangles,' he continued.
Professor Pillinger believes that Beagle 2 could have hit the ground too hard, due to the Martian atmosphere being thinner than usual thanks to dust storms in the region of the landing site. This could have damaged onboard instruments, preventing the probe from establishing contact with Earth.
However, if the team has indeed located Beagle 2, then Professor Pillinger says the mission very nearly worked, and therefore it would have made sense for British and European governments to have supported another Beagle landing attempt. NASA's Mars reconnaissance orbiter, which will photograph the planet in unprecedented detail once it arrives next year, should be able to confirm the sighting, but ESA has already decided to try and send a robotic rover to the Red Planet as part of its next mission, rather than another Beagle probe.
For further information on Beagle 2, please consult the following web address: http://www.beagle2.com/index.htm