New research has shown that the Beagle 2 Mars lander, launched in 2003, came much closer to success than had been thought. After the lander failed to make contact after it was deployed, it was assumed to have crashed on the planet’s surface. Now, images from the HiRise camera on Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have shown that the lander reached the surface intact, and even managed to deploy at least three of its four solar panels.

According to former Beagle 2 mission manager, Mark Sims, “It turns out we didn’t make that many mistakes.”

Still, some questions were left without clear answers. “You still can’t resolve in any detail any of the elements of Beagle 2,” said Sims, who added that the images were also compatible with only two of the solar panels being deployed. Images were enhanced earlier this year, but were still hard to discern. Now, researchers have used 3D computer modeling to model how sunlight would reflect off of the lander’s different components, depending on how many of the panels deployed. They compared these results with the original HiRise images.

Ultimately, researchers from the University of Leicester and De Montfort University concluded that at least 3, if not all four of the panels seemed to have unfurled after the craft landed.

“If the fourth panel didn’t deploy that explains why we couldn’t talk to it,” explained Sims, saying that the fourth panel would have blocked an antenna if it had failed to deploy. “If the fourth panel did start to deploy or even deployed to one of its working angles, then we have a bit more of a mystery in terms of why it didn’t communicate with us. It could be damage to some of the electrical systems, it could be a broken cable, it could be all sorts of things. I suspect in the end we will probably never know the exact reason, but we are getting closer by analyzing the images.”

Sims said that figuring out the cause of the problems for Beagle 2 is emotionally important for those who worked on the team, in addition to being vital for improving the designs of future landers.

“A lot of people worked on it, they worked exceedingly hard, and it enables a kind of closure on what looked like a complete total loss back in 2003, and now looks like being excruciatingly close to a success,” Sims explained.

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