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 UK’s Beagle 2 lander spotted on Mars

(CNN)Turns out the Beagle had landed, after all.

The 11-year-old mystery of what happened to the UK-sponsored Beagle 2 Mars lander on its trip to the red planet’s surface appeared to be mostly solved Friday with the announcement the craft had been spotted in high-resolution NASA images taken from orbit.

The lander — crammed with devices to look for signs of life on Mars — never radioed home after hitching a ride aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter and dropping into the atmosphere on December 25, 2003.

Beagle 2 lander

The images appear to show that the lander’s solar panels didn’t fully open after landing, preventing the craft from getting power and exposing the antenna it would have used to communicate with controllers on Earth, according to the space agency.

While the reasons for that failure remain unknown, the discovery of the lander helps solve one of the most enduring mysteries in Martian exploration, said Mark Sims, a Beagle 2 team member from the University of Leicester.

“Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2,” he said, adding that he’d almost given up hope of ever knowing what had come of the lander.

“The highly complex entry, descent and landing sequence seems to have worked perfectly and only during the final phases of deployment did Beagle 2 unfortunately run into problems,” he said.

The lander, which is less than 2 meters (6.56 feet) across when fully deployed, was first spotted in the NASA images by Michael Croon of Trier, Germany — a former member of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express operations team, the UK Space Agency said.

Croon is among a group of Beagle 2 team members who have spent years combing through images from NASA’s HiRISE camera, which is on the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, looking for signs of the missing craft, the agency said.

He found it in an area near the planned landing zone, an impact basin called Isidis Planitia close to the Martian equator.

The grainy images appear to show the lander resting on the surface, its solar panels only partially deployed. The craft’s rear cover and parachutes are nearby.

Had the lander deployed properly, a suite of onboard tools would have been used to analyze rocks, soil and atmosphere for signs of life.

The lander — the first European craft sent to the Martian surface — was named after the HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on a groundbreaking 5-year scientific survey.

While its namesake resulted in no such breakthroughs, David Parker, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said the discovery proves the Beagle 2 had its successes.

“The history of space exploration is marked by both success and failure,” he said. “This finding makes the case that Beagle 2 was more of a success than we previously knew and undoubtedly an important step in Europe’s continuing exploration of Mars.”

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