Novel analysis technique helps Leicester researchers to solve Beagle 2 mystery

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.

A collaboration between De Montfort University and our University 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.

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).

Watch Professor Mark Sims explain how Beagle 2 was detected on the surface of Mars:

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 8 images of the lander and use of advanced image processing techniques.

Professor 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.

Image showing simulated heat shield, real images of heat shield and simulated image using HiRISE pixels.Credit: De Montfort University/University of Leicester/Beagle 2/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Nick Higgett, leader of the MA Digital Design group at DMU, together with 3D specialists Teodora Kuzmanova and Dr 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. Mr Higgett said it was as close to a definitive explanation as would be possible without landing on the planet itself.

Image showing simulated heat shield, real images of heat shield and simulated image using HiRISE pixels.Credit: De Montfort University/University of Leicester/Beagle 2/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Professor Mark Sims, from our Department of Physics and Astronomy and former Beagle 2 Mission Manager, said: "This unique University collaboration between space scientists and digital designers allowed the reflection analysis concept to be put into practice and tested and ultimately produce these exciting results."

Nick Higgett, Leader Digital Design Research Group at De Montfort University, said: "We are delighted to say that we have gone way beyond the 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."

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 state.

Beagle 2 mission manager Professor Mark Sims will be sharing the latest insights at the second Colin Pillinger Memorial Talk at the University of Bristol on Wednesday 16 November.

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