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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 December 2005, 00:30 GMT
Beagle 2 probe 'spotted' on Mars
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC science correspondent

Annoted image of the possible Beagle crash site

The scientist behind the British Beagle 2 mission to the Red Planet says the craft may have been found in pictures of the Martian surface.

Colin Pillinger says the images suggest the mission very nearly worked, but Beagle somehow failed to contact Earth.

He thinks the craft may have hit the ground too hard - as the atmosphere was thinner than usual because of dust storms in that region of Mars.

This may have damaged onboard instruments, preventing the call home.

The Beagle 2 lead scientist has been painstakingly studying images of the landing site in search of his spacecraft ever since it was lost on Christmas Day two years ago.

Now, he says, specially processed pictures from the camera on the US space agency's (Nasa) Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft show that it came down in a crater close to the planned landing site.

Life search

The robotic laboratory was designed to search Mars for signs of past or present life. The last contact was an image of Beagle taken by its mothership, the Mars Express orbiter, on 19 December 2003.

Beagle 2, Image: Beagle 2
Beagle 2 was designed to seek out signs of life on Mars
The 45m lander was scheduled to put down in a near-equatorial region of the planet known as Isidis Planitia. But despite many attempts to locate it - using overflying spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes - no sign of it, not even any wreckage, has been detected.

Professor Pillinger accepts the sceptics will say Beagle 2 is too small to be seen from space.

And when taken in isolation, each of the "objects" in the crater bowl could be explained by other phenomena. However, he argues, it is unlikely to be mere coincidence that so many unusual features are to be found "within 20m of each other".

"We've had the pessimists round saying 'we've already seen something like that'. But they haven't seen them all together," he told the BBC.

Crater bounce

Based on the features found in the crater, members of the Beagle 2 team have reconstructed what might have happened to Beagle as it touched down on the Red Planet.

"There is a lot of disturbance in this crater, particularly a big patch on the north crater wall which we think is the primary impact site," Professor Pillinger explains.

"There are then other features around the crater consistent with the airbags bouncing around and finally falling down into the middle. Then, when you cut the lace, the airbags fall apart giving three very symmetrical triangles."

Four roughly circular features to the right of the "airbags" could conceivably be Beagle's unfolded solar panels.

Professor Pillinger claims the images show Beagle 2 came very close to being the first spacecraft to mount a concerted search for life on the Martian surface.

And so, he says, it would have been common sense for British and European governments to have backed another attempt.

Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, which will photograph Mars in unprecedented detail once it reaches the planet next year, could confirm the tentative identification.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Professor Colin Pillinger talks about the discovery



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