David Bowie once asked, “Is there life on Mars?” We’ve pondered that question many times and in 2003 the European Space Agency (ESA) initiated Mars Express to find an answer. The objective of the space exploration mission was to conduct astrobiology and geochemistry research; in essence, find out if there is or ever was life on Mars.
A four-stage Soyuz/Fregat launcher, which was built by Starsem, a European/Russian launcher consortium, shot The Mars Express Orbiter into space on June 2, 2003. Once in Earth orbit, the Fregat fired again, propelling the Mars Express and the Beagle 2 landing craft into a Mars transfer orbit.
The Mars Express successfully carried the Beagle 2, named after the HMS Beagle, which ferried Charles Darwin twice, and released it on December 19, 2003. It entered Mars’s atmosphere on December 25, 2003. From there, contact with Beagle 2 was lost. After several attempts were made to communicate with the spacecraft, it was officially declared missing on February 6th, 2004.
Twelve years since its disappearance, the missing landing craft has been located partially deployed on Mars’s surface. Images taken of the area by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show the spacecraft near its intended landing area in Mar’s Isidis Planitia basin. The MRO located Beagle 2 using its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.
Even though it has finally been located, there is no possibility at this time of recovering Beagle 2 or any of its data. According to the ESA website, it was supposed to “determine the geology and the mineral and chemical composition of the landing site…search for life signatures (exobiology) [and] study the weather and climate.” Had the Beagle 2 landed safely on Mars without any complications, it was to beam a signal written by the British group Blur back to Earth. The Beagle 2 also carried with it a “test card” that was to be used to calibrate its cameras and spectrometers. It featured the artwork of British painter, Damien Hirst. Although all these things are currently unretrievable, the ESA’s director general Jean-Jacques Dordain said in a press release that at least, “what was viewed as a failure 11 years ago in fact turns out not to be a total failure.”