Nasa picture clue to Beagle’s fate

A powerful space camera orbiting Mars has taken the first close-up photo of the site where Britain’s Beagle 2 probe is believed to have crashed. It could finally solve the riddle of what happened to the lander which was due to reach the Red Planet on Christmas Day 2003.

But there is apparently no obvious trace of the probe or of any wreckage in the image.

Nasa’s lead scientist for their Mars exploration program, Michael Meyer, told me on a visit to London: “I’ve looked at the picture and I couldn’t see any sign of it.”

The HiRise camera aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the most powerful ever sent out into the solar system. It can detect an object the size of a coffee table on the Martian surface. Nasa plan to release the highly detailed photo, which was taken two weeks ago, on Wednesday.

Beagle 2 should have landed in the Isidis Planitia region of Mars after being carried to the planet by Europe’s Mars Express orbiter. But nothing was heard from it after it should have landed.

In December 2005, Beagle 2 scientist Colin Pillinger said he thought he had found the probe lying in pieces in a 20ft wide crater. But colleagues said they were not convinced by the grainy, low-resolution image, which was taken by another spacecraft.

Professor Pillinger, of the Open University, told me: “I can’t say what the new picture shows until I’ve had a proper chance to look closely at it and talked to Nasa about it.”

Nasa’s Professor Alfred McEwen, who is in charge of the HiRise camera, said: “We plan to release the image on Wednesday. It has already been made available to Colin Pillinger and we plan to let him make the interpretations.”

The super-powerful camera has already sent back photos showing Nasa’s own landers and robot rovers on the Martian surface, including this one of the Opportunity lander and the rover itself here.

The picture is an ESA artist’s impression of Beagle 2 entering the Martian atmosphere.

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