Mars orbiter is ‘set to find Beagle’

Amazing new close-ups of Mars have, for the first time, revealed the landing site of a Nasa probe. The detailed photos, from an orbiting spacecraft, give hope that the fate of the UK’s Beagle 2 mission will finally soon be solved.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter turned its high-resolution eye on the spot where America’s Opportunity rover bounced to a landing in January 2004.

The HiRise images show the airbag-cushioned lander sitting slap in the middle of an impact site called Eagle crater.

Nearby lies the trailing parachute that carried Opportunity safely down, together with broken remnants of its heat shield that protected it when it hit the martian atmosphere. A small, new crater marks the point where the shield hit Mars.

Since landing, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has been trundling about the Meridiani Planum region. It was pictured itself by HiRise last month perched on the edge of the giant Victoria Crater.

Professor Colin Pillinger is looking forward to the orbiter snapping his own Beagle 2 which is believed to have crashed on Mars on Christmas Day, 2003.

Related: Our guide to Mars

Last December, the Open University scientist announced that he thought a blurry enhancement of a photo from another orbiting probe, Mars Global Surveyor, showed Beagle lying in a 20 yard wide crater.

But other scientists have been skeptical about that inetrpretation. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is likely to settle the question for good because it is imaging Mars in incredible detail.

Professor Pillinger told Skymania News yesterday: “When you look at the pictures being sent back by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the detail is incredible. You can almost read the name on the side of the craft.

“I’m in touch with the Nasa team and I know that that looking for Beagle is on their agenda. I have high hopes that we will soon see it confirmed that it is sitting in that crater on Mars.”

Over the next couple of weeks, MRO, flying between 155 and 196 miles above the Red Planet, will attempt to photograph other probes’ landing or crash sites.

Professor Alfred McEwen, of the University of Arizona, who leads the HiRise camera team, said they will target “all the easy-to-find hardware on Mars” over the next couple of weeks.

That will include Opportunity’s sister rover Spirit, the Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers, which have sat on the planet since 1976, and Mars Pathfinder, which touched down in 1998.

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