Landing a spacecraft on a celestial body, whether it be the moon, Mars or a comet, is not easy. The European Space Agency found out the hard way in 2003 when its robot Beagle2, which was supposed to send back a signal after landing on Mars, didn’t do so.
But more than a decade after it went missing, the UK Space Agency has announced that the Beagle2 the elusive lander has been re-discovered.
Beagle2 was ejected from the Mars Express spacecraft on December 19, 2003, and was scheduled to land on December 25. The landing had Beagle2 protected by inflated airbags, which would be released from the lander and roll away before deflating. Beagle2 would then deploy its solar panels, before communicating with orbiting craft. Unfortunately, no signal was received, and after desperate attempts to communicate with Beagle2, it was sadly concluded that the lander had been lost.
The subsequent inquiry found that the most likely causes of the loss were either a problem with the Entry, Descent and Landing System (EDLS) or sheer bad luck. It now looks as though the EDLS worked – so that leaves bad luck.
The images that have sparked the news come from the HiRise camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Oriter. This is an instrument which is able to take very high resolution images of Mars’ surface. The scientists leading the search for the missing Beagle2 were looking for “something that wasn’t red, and wasn’t a pointy rock”. Given that this doesn’t narrow the field down very much, it is testament to the amazing perseverance and talents of the individuals concerned that they have managed to locate the lander.
It is poignant that the information comes at this time – Colin Pillinger was very much the driving force behind Beagle2, and one of the leaders of the Rosetta mission. His premature death last year deprived the scientific community of one of its most charismatic members. How he would have gloried in the re-discovery of Beagle2.
In contrast to the finding of Beagle2 comes news of another of ESA’s landers: Philae. Getting Rosetta spacecraft to drop Philae was an exciting and nerve-wracking time – the lander successfully sent an arrival signal, but subsequent information showed that Philae hadn’t landed where it was supposed to.
Since the mid-November landing, there have been several possible sightings of Philae from cameras on-board Rosetta. But none has been confirmed as the lander. Rosetta is continuing its science mission – which means that it has moved further away from the nucleus of comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is now taking wider-field images of the comet’s nucleus, to search for signs of developing surface activity, rather than the more narrow, specific area images that were being acquired in the search for Philae.
Even though the exact location of Philae is unknown, the lander is not lost. It is misplaced, and there is hope that when Rosetta next approaches close to the nucleus, in mid-February, it will once again be able to resume scanning for its delinquent child.
And what of ESA’s third lander – the hugely successful Huygens spacecraft? This is also celebrating its anniversary. It landed on Saturn’s moon, Titan, in January 2005. It did everything that was asked of it, landed where it was supposed to land, acquired the data it was supposed to acquire, and then, on time and with no fuss, quietly went to sleep. A lesson for other landers to learn?
So if you kept score, ESA Landers: Mission accomplished 1, Lost 1, Found 1.
Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system, is home to a salty ocean with more water than all the water on Earth, NASA said today.
While the moon, which orbits Jupiter, has long been suspected to contain water, the Hubble Space Telescope has found compelling evidence of a vast salt water ocean beneath the moon’s icy surface, the space agency said.
Ganymede is the only moon in the solar system known to have its own magnetic field, and that magnetic field creates ribbons of glowing electrified gas, like the aurora on Earth. Scientists observed that when Jupiter’s magnetic field changes, Ganymede’s glowing ribbons of gas also changed — rocking back and forth.
It’s over 1,600 miles wide, a distant world at the far reaches of our solar system. The largest moon of Saturn, Titan and also the second-largest satellite in the solar system, dwarfed only by Earth’s moon. Aside from our planet, Titan is also the only place in the solar system known to contain liquids, containing a number of seas, lakes and streams that differ from those on Earth in one important respect – they’re composed entirely of methane and ethane, with freezing temperatures significantly below the record lows of the Antarctic Ocean. The depths of Titan’s largest sea, Kraken Mare, can reach lows of -298 degrees Fahrenheit. Somewhere beneath the moon’s surface, is a wealth of petroleum far more abundant than anywhere on Earth. As tantalizing as the moon may sound, we’ve only managed to scratch the surface, one decade after the Huygens probe sent a lander there in January 2005, to a reflective region of the moon known as Xanadu. Nothing has landed there since.
However, Huygens may just be the beginning of a rather exciting chapter in space travel. At the time of its landing, the Cassini spacecraft was actively orbiting the planet Saturn, offering us only subtle hints of the moon’s surface, beyond its atmosphere of orange clouds. With the aid of the spacecraft’s Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imager, capable of infiltrating the fog much more readily than the human eye, the Huygens probe has transmitted data back to Earth, helpful in generating maps of the moon’s surface. However, some grains still remain in what are otherwise extensively detailed pictures, causing scientists to further investigate the moon’s rather mountainous surface. It is likely that liquid played an important role in shaping the moon, with eons of precipitation causing a number of the rocky features. Among the more unusual aspects of Titan are the recently discovered presence of waves – making methane bodies like the Kraken and Ligeia Mare rather unstable and violent regions, due to extreme tidal pulls from Saturn.
By the year 2040, NASA hopes to release a submersible into these fierce waters, which are likely places for harboring any extraterrestrial life that may be lurking beneath the surface. This summer, a flyby of the moon revealed what appeared to be islands, jutting out from under the powerful currents of Titan’s lakes and reflecting the light in Cassini’s lenses. Until the mission is designed, researchers have also employed a “despeckling” process to cancel out noise, bouncing radar signals from the surface rather than making use of light sensitive photography, which will be useful in gauging points for further exploration and an understanding of how the moon began to form. What is yet another mystery harbored by Titan is the possibility that it may be significantly older than Saturn, with even its atmosphere being older than its host planet.
Rather than using a map with legends and points, researchers will be rewarded with 3-D maps of the surface using altimetry data and elevation mapping, sent out in the radar signal. However, researchers are making minimal use of the process, being careful as to not add trivial details to the planet. Ultimately, researchers will work out one feature at a time for as long as Cassini maintains its flybys over Titan. While it is being used to continuously build a picture of this far off world, despecking, which operates on a de-noising algorithm perfected by astrophysicist Antoine Lucas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, may have some practical use on other planets as well as here at home, possibly drafting maps of affected disaster areas, already giving us some implication of the technology that further probe missions to Titan may bring.