Scientists in Leicester have moved one step closer to understanding exactly what happened to the ill-fated Mars Lander Beagle 2, thanks to an innovative research technique.
The probe was discovered on the Red Planet in November 2014, but uncertainty surrounded what had caused its failure to communicate with Earth.
Now, a collaboration between De Montfort University and the University of Leicester has used 3D modelling technology to reveal for the first time that Beagle 2 deployed at least three, and possibly all four, of the solar panels it was supposed to after touching down on the planet’s surface.
The finding will rewrite scientific knowledge about the stricken lander – it was previously thought that perhaps only (as few as) two of the four solar panels had deployed.
Beagle 2 was part of the ESA Mars Express mission launched in June 2003. Mars Express is still orbiting Mars and returning scientific data on the planet. Beagle 2 was successfully ejected from ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft on 19 December 2003 but failed to send a signal on Christmas Day – its scheduled landing day on Mars. It was presumed lost until over a decade later when the mystery of what happened to the mission was solved through images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
Despite its detection, due to the small size of the lander and the resolution of the HiRISE camera on the MRO, the exact configuration of the lander on Mars was not clear – despite collection of eight images of the lander and use of advanced image-processing techniques.
Now the researchers from De Montfort University and the University of Leicester have worked together to come up with a new way to detect the configuration of the lander.
Mark Sims, former Beagle 2 Mission Manager and Professor of Astrobiology and Space Instrumentation at the University of Leicester came up with the concept of “reflection analysis” – of matching simulated and real images of Beagle 2.
The technique is based on simulating possible configurations of the lander on the surface and comparing the light of the Sun reflected by the simulated lander with the unprocessed images available from the HiRISE camera at a number of different Sun angles.
Sims turned to a team at De Montfort University to realise his concept. Commercially available software used for 3D modelling, animation, visual effects and simulation design was adapted to enable this analysis.
Nick Higgett, leader of the De Montfort University simulation team, says: “This has been an exciting collaboration with the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre. The De Montfort team were responsible for all the 3D simulation work to test the reflection analysis concept. In order to do this, our visualisation specialist Teodora Kuzmanova had to create a physically accurate 3D model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander with surfaces that would accurately reflect virtual sunlight. The angle of the Sun had to be simulated along with position of a virtual camera that could take pictures equivalent to NASA’s Reconnaissance Orbiter. Finally these images had to be pixelated to match the resolution of the spacecraft’s images.
“The visual comparison between the real and simulated images could then begin to identify which landing configuration was the best fit. This was originally a proof-of-principle project. However, we are delighted to say that we have gone way beyond this original plan to reach this exciting conclusion that Beagle 2 did not crash but landed and probably deployed most of its panels. Hopefully these results help to solve a long held mystery and will benefit any future missions to Mars.”
Sims adds: “Although the concept of the ‘reflection analysis’ was mine, I didn’t know it would work. Thanks to the effort of the team at De Montfort University they proved that this concept could work, and we have gathered more information on the failure of Beagle 2 to communicate, and we are one step closer to knowing what happened. In reality we may of course never know exactly what caused its failure to communicate after what has been confirmed as a successful landing, which was a fantastic achievement by the Beagle 2 team. The work shows frustratingly that Beagle 2 came so close to working as intended on Mars.
“This unique university collaboration between space scientists and digital designers allowed this reflection analysis concept to be put into practice and tested and ultimately produce these exciting results.”
Higgett, together with 3D specialists Teodora Kuzmanova and Eric Tatham, used 3D software to model the scene in three dimensions, adjusting the position of the Sun and the resting angle and orientation of the Beagle 2, unfolding the four solar panels at different angles taking in the illumination conditions on the planet until they found the best visual match to what the NASA original images showed. These simulations were then adjusted to reproduce the resolution and view point of the NASA spacecraft.
The work confirmed that antenna transmission would probably have been hampered by one of the panels failing to unfold correctly, confirming the previously supposed theory.
Higgett says it was as close to a definitive explanation as would be possible without landing on the planet itself.
The best match 4-panel configuration is at a different tilt angle – in terms of angle of the panels with respect to the lid of Beagle 2 – from the 3-panel configuration. This analysis also confirms that the Beagle 2 front heat shield has been detected on Mars and its configuration and orientation is now also known. This work contributes further information to the analysis of why Beagle 2 failed to transmit from the surface of Mars and complements other techniques such as super-resolution imaging as conducted by Professor Jan-Peter Muller and his team at University College London.
The researchers, who plan to publish their findings, add: “The current analysis is we believe fully consistent with this other work which combines data from all the different Sun angles.
“This work (further) confirms that the entry, descent and landing (EDL) sequence for Beagle 2 worked as expected and the lander did successfully touchdown on Mars on Christmas Day 2003.
“However, for an as yet unconfirmed and undetected reason it failed to communicate following landing, although incomplete deployment for an unknown reason continues to be the likely primary cause, particularly in the case of three-panel deployment where the RF antenna would be unable to transmit through the fourth un-deployed panel.”
The scientists add that the “reflection analysis” technique used for this research could find applications in other fields where an illumination source is present and the target has a limited set of configurations and is highly reflective in nature. “Further analysis of the Beagle 2 images using the technique, subject to additional funding and ideally other images at a variety of Sun angles, might further define the configuration of the 1st UK ESA lander to land on Mars,” they say.