The discovery of Beagle 2 on Mars should spur the search for other items lost to science.
An odd idiom in the English language points out that when an object is mislaid, it will turn up “always in the last place you look for it”. Space scientists never stopped looking for Beagle 2, the probe that vanished when British researchers tried to land it on Mars in 2003, and last week their persistence paid off. A tiny, shiny smudge in a high-resolution image of the red planet, taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), is very probably the missing spacecraft, the researchers told a press conference in London.
The blurry pictures suggest that the shoestring mission, costing some £50 million (US$76 million), did better than many have suggested. It is impossible to be sure, but the craft’s complicated entry, descent and landing sequence — which involved a parachuted descent followed by a series of bounces cushioned by airbags — seems to have worked as planned. Landing intact on the planet’s surface, the probe then probably failed to open all of its solar panels properly, leaving it unable to call home. The exact reason for this will probably remain a mystery. Perhaps the lander hit a rock, or arrived at a faster pace than it should have (data suggest the planet’s atmosphere was thinner than expected), or maybe one of the airbags failed to detach and got in the way.
If the British team was unlucky then, it is fortunate now. When the press conference was announced — but not the reason for it — some commentators scoffed at the suggestion that the spacecraft had been found. Measuring just 2 metres across, Beagle 2 was found stranded in a landing zone some 60 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide. Although the scientists have examined photos of the Martian surface for years, the find only became a realistic possibility with the 2006 arrival in orbit of the MRO’s HiRISE camera, which has a pixel resolution of about 25 centimetres.
The discovery, and the signs that the probe fell only at the final hurdle, marks a victory of sorts for the mission, which was launched by a group of British universities and headed by the media-savvy researcher Colin Pillinger, who died last year. Some space scientists who were critical of the low-budget mission unfairly confused the team’s enthusiasm and determination for amateurism — including the European Space Agency, which published a scathing report on the lander’s loss in 2004. Bad luck can skewer even the most costly space missions.
At the very least, the happy ending to the decade-long search should encourage others to keep looking for their own missing equipment, artefacts and specimens. For a precise pursuit, science can be surprisingly sloppy. It is easy, one can concede, to get lost in space, but we should be more careful on Earth. NASA, for example, complained in 2012 that dozens of pieces of its Moon rock, brought back by Apollo astronauts and distributed along with other space samples as tokens of goodwill to US states and foreign nations, have been mislaid. Fragments of meteorites have been lost in the post, and a valuable chunk of Moon collected by the Apollo 11 mission is believed to have been discarded on a rubbish tip in Ireland.
Last month, the University of Texas at Austin said that it was searching for 100 human brains that had been lent to its psychology department by a local hospital in the 1980s, but were now unaccounted for. One thing is certain: they will be in the last place the university thinks to look.
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Nature Geoscience (2015)