If the Beagle had landed…

by Peter W McOwan and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

(Updated from the archive)

A replica of Beagle 2 in the Science Museum with solar panels deployed.
Image by user:geni from Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

A reason the Apollo Moon landings were manned was in-part because the astronauts were there to deal with things if they went wrong: landing on a planet or moon’s surface is perfectly possible to do automatically as long as things go to plan. It is when something unexpected happens that is always going to be the tricky bit.

Beagle 2 is a good example. It was a British-built space probe that was sent to explore Mars in 2003. Named after biologist Charles Darwin’s famous ship, Beagle 2, sadly it never made it. It was due to land on Christmas Day that year, but something went wrong and it vanished without a trace. Beagle 2’s disappearance was perhaps the inspiration behind the Guinevere One space probe in the 2005 Doctor Who episode ‘The Christmas Invasion’, but Beagle 2 was unlikely to have been stolen by the Sycorax.

Had Beagle 2 made it, the first thing we would have heard was its radio call sign, which was some digital music specially composed by Britpop group, Blur. It wasn’t the only part of the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission that had an artistic twist. Famous British artist Damien Hirst (the man who had previously pickled halved calves in formaldehyde tanks), had designed one of his famous spot paintings – rows of differently coloured spots – that was to be used as an instrument calibration chart. It would have been the first art on Mars, but it, instead, appeared to have become the first art all over Mars! However, if you shoot for the stars you have to expect things to fail sometimes. You learn and try again.

There was a twist to the story too, as eleven years later in 2015, the Beagle 2 was spotted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Using sophisticated image reconstruction programs working with a series of different images, a picture of it was created that allowed the scientists to work out some of what had happened. It had landed successfully on Mars, but apparently its solar panels had then failed to fully open. One appeared to be blocking its communications antenna meaning it had no way to talk to Earth, and no way to repair itself either. It may well have collected data, but just couldn’t tell us about it (or play us some Blur). The data it collected (if it did) may be there, though, waiting for the day when it can be passed back to Earth.

While it may not have succeeded in helping us find out more about Mars, Beagle 2 has presumably become the first Martian Art Gallery, though, displaying the one and only work of art on the planet: a spot picture by Damien Hirst.

More on …

  • Computer Science in Space
  • Read the full story of the trade-offs between human and machine control in Apollo in: Digital Apollo, David A Mindell, The MIT Press, 2011.

Related Magazines …

This cs4fn blog is funded by EPSRC, through grant EP/W033615/1.

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