The Beagle has landed, new images taken by a sharp-eyed satellite orbiting Mars show, more than a decade after contact with the U.K.-built spacecraft was lost during the probe's descent to the planet's surface.
Beagle 2 was released by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter on Dec. 23, 2003, and programmed to touch down in Isidis Planitia, an impact basin close to the Martian equator.
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It was never heard from again.
"To be frank, I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2," Mark Sims, a former mission manager with the University of Leicester, said in a statement.
Images taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and released on Friday show that Beagle 2 did indeed make it to the planet's surface and apparently at least partially deployed its solar panels.
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"Whether all the panels have been opened up or not has yet to be determined by the Beagle team," planetary geologist Tim Parker, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a NASA interview.
The lost lander appeared as bright streaks in two images, confirmation that the object actually was something on the ground and not an optical artifact from a cosmic ray striking the camera's electronic eye.
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Analysis of a third image was then used to distinguish glints of light reflecting from different angles. Working with the Beagle 2 team, Parker and colleagues were then able to identify what appears to be the lander itself in a partially deployed configuration and what is believed to be the rear cover with its drogue chute still attached. Beagle 2's main parachute is nearby.
The spacecraft, which measured just 7 feet in diameter, is right at the detection limit of MRO's high-resolution camera.
"The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars," Sims said. "I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found."