Following the discovery of the ‘lost’ Beagle 2 lander on the surface of Mars, BILL READ reports on how the 2003 UK space mission came much closer to success than previously realised and how the UK is a key player in the forthcoming ESA ExoMars missions to the Red Planet.

The Beagle HAD landed... (ESA) 

In January, the UK Space Agency announced strong evidence that the lost Beagle 2 Mars Lander had been found intact on the surface of the Red Planet, just over 11 years after it went missing on Christmas Day 2003 after being released from the European Space Agency (ESA) Mars Express orbiter on 19 December 2003.

The remains of the lander were identified from images taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) designed to take very high resolution images of Mars’ surface. Subsequent re-imaging and analysis by former members of the Beagle 2 team, together with scientists from HiRISE and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), confirmed that the images are the correct size, shape, colour and dispersion to be Beagle 2.

The aim of Beagle 2’s mission was to look for signs of past or present life on Mars and to see how its mountains and rocks were formed. The mission plan was for Beagle 2 to make a controlled descent onto the surface of Mars using parachutes and airbags and then send a signal to Earth saying that it had arrived safely. However, no signal was ever received to confirm that it had survived the landing and it was assumed that the spacecraft had crashed onto the surface.

From the images, scientists say that it appears that, contrary to what was previously believed, the lander did survive the landing in one piece and is located 5km from the centre of its targeted touchdown zone of Isidis Planitia (an impact basin close to the equator). The protective backshell with the pilot/drogue chute and main parachute are close by. However, although it appears that Beagle 2 did land successfully, the images show that it only unfurled two or three of four deployable ‘petals’ fitted with solar panels.

“Without full deployment, there is no way we could have communicated with it, as the radio frequency antenna was under the solar panels,”  explained Prof Mark Sims, Beagle’s mission manager from the University of Leicester in a BBC news interview. “The failure cause is pure speculation but it could have been, and probably was, down to sheer bad luck - a heavy bounce perhaps distorting the structure, as clearances on solar panel deployment weren’t big; or a punctured and slowly leaking airbag not separating sufficiently from the lander, causing a hang-up in deployment.” Unfortunately, because there is no way to communicate with Beagle 2, scientists have said that nothing further can be done to reactive the lander.

Low-cost mission


Beagle 2s final resting place was imaged by NASA's HiRISE camera (UK Space Agency).

Beagle-2 was the UK’s first mission to another planet and with a total cost of around £50m, was one the lowest cost interplanetary missions ever devised. The Beagle 2 project was led by Prof Colin Pillinger from the Open University. Unfortunately Colin Pillinger died in 2014, along with Prof Dave Barnes from Aberystwyth University who helped develop the lander’s robotic arm and Prof George Fraser of the University of Leicester who developed the Beagle 2 X-ray Spectrometer.. Prof Pillinger was the driving force behind the project, persuading ESA to carry the UK rover as part of the payload aboard the Mars Express. Pillinger was also instrumental in persuading both UK academic organisations and private companies to invest in the project and, in so doing, creating a huge public awareness and enthusiasm for space research. Project partners were the Open University, University of Leicester and EADS Astrium UK (now Airbus Defence and Space) supported by funds from ESA, the Office of Science and Technology of the Department of Trade and Industry, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the Wellcome Trust, the National Space Centre and the Millennium Commission.

Following the loss, a Commission of Inquiry was set up by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the forerunner of what is now the UK Space Agency. The enquiry concluded that the mission had failed because of a combination of poor management and inadequate testing of systems and components. It also concluded that too little money had been allocated to the Beagle project at its outset. Among the report’s 19 conclusions was the requirement that communications with future probes be maintained through the various descent phases, the recommendation which has since become standard practice.

Return to Mars


The UK is set to be the 'lead role' nation in ESA's ExoMars mission. (Airbus Defence and Space)

The UK’s involvement with Martian exploration has not ended with Beagle 2 and the British Space Agency is a key participant in the forthcoming ESA ExoMars missions to the Red Planets planned for 2016 and 2018. The UK is the second largest contributor to the missions, with a total investment of €165m.

ExoMars comprises two missions under ESA’s Aurora programme designed to further scientific discovery and develop technologies to lay the foundations for human space exploration. The aim of the ExoMars missions is to examine the geological environment on Mars and search for evidence of environments that have or still could support life. It will also assist in preparing for further future unmanned missions, including a Mars Sample Return mission, and possible future human exploration. Both missions will be launched using a Russian Proton rocket.

ExoMars 2016

The 2016 ExoMars mission will see an orbiter and a landing demonstrator to test key technology. (ESA)

The first mission of the ExoMars programme, scheduled to arrive at Mars in 2016, consists of a Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) plus an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM). The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to subsequent missions to Mars. The aim of the EDM is to test technology for a controlled landing on Mars, material for thermal protection, parachute system, radar Doppler altimeter system and a final braking system controlled by liquid propulsion. The EDM will be fitted with some scientific sensors but will only have a limited operational life as it will rely on batteries.

Meanwhile, the TGO will remain in orbit while it performs detailed, remote observations of the Martian atmosphere, searching for evidence of gases of possible biological importance, such as methane and its degradation products. The Orbiter will also serve as a data relay asset for the 2018 ExoMars mission until the end of 2022.

ExoMars 2018

The 2018 ExoMars mission will feature a wheeled rover to explaore to Red Planet (ESA).
This will be followed in 2018 by a second ExoMars launch which will carry the ExoMars rover to arrive at Mars in 2019. The 2018 rover’s payload will be devoted to geology, geochemistry and exobiology. Using a combination of batteries and power generated from solar arrays, the six-wheeled ExoMars rover will be able to move autonomously around the Martian surface to target destinations designated from Earth navigating with the use of and optical sensors. The rover is fitted with cameras, optical sensors and ground penetrating radar data which will enable scientists to determine suitable drilling locations. A subsurface sampling device can drill and collect samples up to 2m beneath the surface. Samples can be crushed into powder and analysed within the vehicle and subjected to chemistry, physical, and spectral analyses.

UK involvement

The ExoMars rover is being built by UK Airbus Defence and Space and there is considerable UK involvement with its scientific instruments and software.

Airbus Defence and Space

Lead builder of the ExoMars rover


On-board software and its autonomous operations.

University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), University of Aberystwyth, Birkbeck College and University of Leicester

PanCam wide-angle angle and high resolution panoramic camera system enabling 3D digital terrain mapping.

University of Leicester, Bradford University and STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

CCD camera on Raman Laser Spectrometer (Raman LIBS) which can detect the presence of chemical compounds including minerals and also specific types of ‘biomarker’ chemicals indicative of past or present life

Open University

Involvement with the NOMAD instrument on board the 2016 TGO.

Mars Yard

UK Business Secretary Vince Cable and David Parker, Chief Executive, UK Space Agency at the opening of the 'Mars Yard' in 2014. (ESA)

As part of the preparations for the ExoMars 2018 mission, a ‘Mars yard’ test area simulating the Martian surface was opened at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage in March 2014. Filled with 300 tonnes of sand, the 30 × 13 m Mars yard mimics the appearance of the Martian landscape. All walls, doors and interior surfaces are painted reddish-brown to ensure the rover’s navigation cameras are confronted by as realistic a scenario as possible. The yard may also be used after the rover has landed, to assist overcome any challenging situations that might be encountered on the Red Planet.

The discovery that the Beagle 2 mission was closer to success than previously realised is a welcome boost to the forthcoming Mars missions which will continue the scientific research that the original lander was intended to begin. “The history of space exploration is marked by both success and failure,” commented Dr David Parker, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency. “This finding makes the case that Beagle 2 was more of a success than we previously knew and undoubtedly an important step in Europe’s continuing exploration of Mars.”

Professor Colin Pillinger's unsuccessful Beagle 2 mission has paved the way for UK involvement in ExoMars.

22 January 2015