On December 19, 2003, a tiny spaceship called the Beagle 2 was released from Mars Express, a craft orbiting Mars. On Christmas day, the lander plunged through the Martian atmosphere traveling more than 20,000 kph, and then it was never heard from again. Now there's reason to believe that NASA has spotted the diminutive craft that was part of a British-led effort under the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission.
The Guardian is reporting that NASA representatives involved with the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will participate in a conference this Friday to provide updates about the Beagle 2 mission.
The speculation is that the camera, which can shoot pictures on the Martian surface of objects as small as 3 feet in diameter, has spotted the lost Beagle, much in the same way it found the two Viking landers, which settled into their Martian homes in 1976.
"HiRise is the only camera at Mars that can see former spacecraft like Beagle 2," Shane Byrne, a scientist on the HiRISE team at the University of Arizona, told The Guardian. "It's definitely pretty close to its intended landing spot, no matter what. It entered the atmosphere at the right time and place." He also told the paper that he and his team have been asked to refrain from saying more until Friday's conference.
The original hope for the saucer-shaped Beagle 2 -- which is named after the ship upon which Charles Darwin traveled and did research -- was that it was going to "stick its devices right into Mars, sampling rocks and soil on the surface and below," according to a NASA report about the mission at the time.
It was to do this with two devices that were attached to its robotic arm -- a mole that could dig into the planet's surface and retrieve core samples and a rock abrasion tool that could take interior samples from rocks. All the samples were meant to be brought back to Beagle 2's onboard oven and cooked. The gas from the process was to be analyzed by a mass spectrometer, which would seek out signs of life in the form of different carbon signatures.
None of that came to fruition, though -- nor did the musical score that the band Blur was supposed to write and then play when the Beagle landed. (You can learn more about that here.) Instead, the Beagle bounced into oblivion, remaining unseen for over a decade. If it's announced on Friday that it has been found, it will put to rest some theories about the fate of the spacecraft, including this one that postulates that the Beagle 2 burned up in the Martian atmosphere.