Monday, 19 January 2015

Near-Misses: Beagle 2 Found And SpaceX Crash A Rocket

A  picture of the surface of Mars obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The bright patch in the centre is the right shape and in the correct place to be the long-lost Beagle 2 lander. Image Credit: HiRISE/NASA/Leicester

This Friday saw news of two space related near misses- missions that came very close to success, but failed at the last moment. The first was the discovery, after eleven years searching, of the UK-led Mars Lander Beagle 2.

Carried to the red planet by the European Space Agency's Mars Express, the tiny space craft was planned to land on Christmas Day 2003. Although Beagle 2 was both small, around two meters across when fully deployed, and cheap, with a total budget in the region of £50 million, its innovative science payload would have been able to make the kind of observations that are only now being carried out by the two billion dollar Curiosity rover.

Sadly, the lander never called home. With no signal picked up on Earth, it was assumed that Beagle 2 had crashed onto the surface of Mars. Most of the blame was attributed to the complex landing system, which used a sequence of parachutes and airbags to safely lower the lander onto the surface.

But last year something was spotted in images of the landing site taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter- a bright spot, at odds with the read surface around it. Follow-up images confirmed that the object was really there, and that it probably wasn't just an unusual surface feature. With maximum resolution of around 0.3m, HiRISE was just able to pick out the shape of the bright patch- A shape which matched that of the long-lost Beagle 2.

More images showed that the structure of the bright patch was consistent with Beagle 2 having managed to unfold only two of its four solar panels. Here at last was the explanation for why the tiny spacecraft had never been heard from- the transmitter was blocked by the panels that had failed to open.

If this is Beagle 2, then it reveals that the landing system did work, and that Beagle 2 was the first European spacecraft to successfully land on Mars. Although it is probably better to know what happened, it's not really a happy ending- Beagle 2 came so close to success!

Artists impression of Beagle 2 fully deployed on the surface of Mars. The HiRISE observation appears to show that just two of the solar panels deployed, leaving the crucial transmitter covered up. Image Credit:

The other near miss? On Friday afternoon, SpaceX released this footage of their attempt to land a rocket on a floating platform. I recommend turning the sound up:

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on 10th January, carrying a Dragon cargo ship, which successfully docked with the International Space Station a few days later. During the launch, SpaceX attempted something that has never been done before: Landing the first stage of the rocket, which drops off about three minutes into the flight, onto a floating platform in the middle of the Atlantic.

As the video shows, they hit it dead on, landing on the platform within an accuracy of about ten metres. Unfortunately, at the last second the control surfaces of the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid. The Falcon 9 hit the platform at an angle, causing what SpaceX's founder Elon Musk dubbed a "Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly".

Unlike Beagle 2 though, this isn't the end of the story. SpaceX will try again on their next launch at the beginning of February, this time with more hydraulic fluid. If they can perfect these landings then they will be able to reuse the rocket, slashing the currently huge cost of space travel.

And it's not really the end of the story for Beagle 2. The lessons learnt from the unfortunate spacecraft will go into the next UK-led mission to Mars, the 2018 ExoMars rover.  

Follow me on Twitter for new blog posts. I also wrote an Astrobite this week.

No comments:

Post a Comment