Over Christmas in 2003, I was watching the BBC news with my grandfather, hoping to hear that ESA or NASA had picked up a signal from the Martian surface. We waited.
We waited a bit more. However, it wasn’t until some weeks later (if I remember correctly) that the UK’s Beagle 2 Mars lander was officially declared dead (although I suspected as much in the 30 minutes of silence after the time it was supposed to touch down). The little lander’s taxi ride across millions of miles of space, the Mars Express, was working just fine, but Beagle 2? Not so much.
This was incredibly sad on so many levels. From a patriotic viewpoint, I was shattered. The chance to have a British presence on the Red Planet would not only have been inspiring, it may have given funding a small boost for the UK science community. Also, personally, only the week before, I’d been defending the mission to some friends who were convinced that the crazy idea of sending a British probe to Mars was pointless, as it was never going to make it.
What ever came before that December in 2003, it was all academic. Beagle 2, for whatever reason, didn’t phone home. Game over.
Of course, that wouldn’t be it. For months after, Martian satellites hunted for any evidence for a mini Beagle-shaped divot in the red dirt. Eventually, they found it, two years later.
So what happened to the little robot? Why did it turn into a meteorite and not a lander? Well, back in 2008, Madhat Abdel-Jawad and his engineer team at the University of Queensland thought they’d worked it all out. Apparently, Beagle 2’s gyroscopic spin was too fast, causing it to become unstable during re-entry. This may have caused it to tumble as it entered the Mars atmosphere. Obviously, tumbling isn’t good, so it hit the ground like scrap metal.
As it turns out, the Beagle 2 team are far from convinced this happened at all. Arthur Smith of Fluid Gravity Engineering in Emsworth, Hampshire, points out that Abdel-Jawad’s team did not simulate re-entry in a gravity field, and they failed to realize the lander had an offset centre of gravity. This means the simulation wasn’t complete, indicating the “tumbling Beagle” may not be the final explanation.
Now, Smith and his team will be publishing a paper with their findings
“All our assumptions were valid over the time of flight we analysed,” Abdel-Jawad said in response to this news. “We would be delighted to accept the findings of the Beagle team’s new study if it were found to be valid after we review their analysis.”
Whether the Australian team is correct or not seems rather academic. Something went terribly wrong during re-entry, this is true, but there are so many variables that I’m not sure if we’ll ever hit on the real reason why Beagle 2 dropped from the sky that 2003 winter. Sure, it might aid future development of future landers, but unless they find a gaping design flaw or construction mistake (like the NASA Genesis “woops, I installed the accelerometer backwards” mission mishap), Beagle 2 made a crater in the Martian surface, and there won’t be a crash recovery team to pick up the bits for a long while yet…
Source: New Scientist