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Could one Mars mission save another?

Posted January 18, 2015 10:54 p.m. EST
Updated January 19, 2015 11:17 a.m. EST

The U.K.’s Beagle 2 lander has been located on the surface of Mars, solving an 11-year mystery about its fate. The discovery also helps answer questions about why we haven't heard from the trashcan-lid sized spacecraft while raising others. Could one of the operational rovers, Curiosity or Opportunity, take on the role of interplanetary tow truck and help revive Beagle 2?

Would you want to wait for a snail to crawl from Raleigh to Salt Lake City?

Images from the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) revealed Beagle 2 intact on the surface of Isidis Planitia. Named for HMS Beagle, the ship that carried British naturalist Charles Darwin on expeditions, the Beagle 2 lander was deployed from the Mars Express orbiter Dec. 19, 2003. It was to perform geochemistry research in a search for signs of past and present life on Mars.

While disappointing, the lack of success wasn't surprising. Getting to Mars is hard; historically missions have only a 40 percent chance of success. However, the British team that engineered Beagle 2 can take pride in the fact that it not only successfully landed intact but landed only about 2.5 miles from the center of the 35 by 5 mile landing ellipse by my calculations.

HiRISE images from Dec. 15, 2014, provided the final clues MRO and Mars Express teams needed to declare, “The Beagle has landed."  Comparison of that image with previous ones from February 2013 and June 2014 confirmed an object of the right size and shape. Slight variations were also present in reflections from the lander’s solar panels, which open out like petals.

These images may also help explain why the lander has remained silent. One of the three solar panels appears to have failed to deploy, robbing the spacecraft of power and possibly blocking RF antennae needed to communicate home. Scientists involved in the British designed spacecraft call it “bad luck."

“A heavy bounce, perhaps distorting the structure as clearances on solar panel deployment weren't big; or a punctured and slowly leaking air bag not separating sufficiently from the lander, causing a hang-up in deployment,” Mission Manger Mark Sims of Leicester University speculated to BBC News.

So why can’t NASA use the Curiosity rover to lend a hand here? As great as it would be see if deploying that remaining solar panel might help bring the lander back to life, it’s just too far away.

Points on Mars are mapped using a similar longitude/latitude system to that used on Earth. Beagle 2 was found at 90º.43 E, 11º.53 N, Curiosity's last reported position is 137º.38E, 4º.67 S, and Opportunity is on the other side of the planet at 5.35W, 2.31S. Mars is about half the size of Earth, so the distance between lines of longitude is about half that of Earth. Even with that, Curiosity is 1,800 miles away (roughly Raleigh to Salt Lake City), and Opportunity is nearly twice as far away (Raleigh to Anchorage, Alaska). You can see these locations yourself in the free Google Earth app, select View->Explore->Mars and search on the coordinates above to explore these landing sites.

Also, rovers are built for precision, not speed. Even at Curiosity’s top speed of 4 cm/sec (over flat, hard ground, which most of Mars is not) the rover travels at a snail's pace. It would take over 841 Earth days to travel the 1,800+ miles. You could crawl from Raleigh to Salt Lake City faster, a lot faster.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.