Nasa scientists may have discovered the wreckage of the UK’s pioneering Mars lander Beagle 2 on the surface of Mars in a breakthrough development more than 12 years after the spacecraft's disappearance.
The fate of Beagle 2 has been a mystery ever since the closely watched failed landing attempt on Christmas Day 2003.
In a rather secretive manner, the UK Space Agency said it would release new information about the lander, a brainchild of the late British planetary scientist Professor Colin Pillinger, later this week.
According to the Guardian, the announcement may be nothing less than the actual discovery of the lander on the surface of the Red Planet.
The Guardian said presenting at the Friday briefing would be scientists operating the HiRise camera on Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the only imaging tool currently in orbit around Mars capable of scanning the planet’s surface with a high enough level of detail to distinguish the dustbin-lid-sized lander.
Previously, the HiRise team managed to find two Viking landers from the 1970s and capture images of Nasa’s Phoenix, Curiosity and Opportunity rovers.
The UK Space Agency refused to confirm the speculation.
Beagle 2 piggybacked its way to Mars aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter in 2003. While Mars Express established its position in the Martian orbit and continues to successfully provide images of the planet until today, the lander went silent during its descent soon after detaching from Mars Express.
Scientists never heard a signal from the lander and were unable to identify the cause of the failure.
It was thought unlikely that it missed the planet or burned up in the atmosphere. Other possible scenarios involved malfunctions of Beagle 2's parachutes or cushioning airbags.
In 2005 Prof Pillinger claimed images of the Martian surface captured by another US spacecraft, the Mars Global Surveyor, may have revealed a fuzzy glimpse of Beagle 2 near its planned landing site in the near-equatorial region of Mars known as Isidis Planitia.
He thought the probe might have hit the ground too hard, due to the atmosphere being thinner than usual because of dust storms.
According to the Guardian's sources, the HiRise camera was recently imaging the Martian surface in exactly the same area.
“It’s definitely pretty close to its intended landing spot, no matter what. It entered the atmosphere at the right time and place,” Shane Byrne, a scientist on the HiRise team at the University of Arizona told the Guardian.
Prof Pillinger didn't live to learn the fate of Beagle 2. He died in May last year.
Beagle 2 was a unique space mission in that it was largely funded by private donations and money raised by promotional campaigns led by Prof Pillinger.
The mission's call-sign was composed by the Britpop band Blur, and the 'test card' used to calibrate the probe's cameras and spectrometer instruments after the landing was painted by Damien Hirst.
Despite its small size and shoestring cost, Beagle 2 contained some sophisticated hardware. Elements of its miniaturised technology will be employed on ExoMars, the European rover that will be sent to Mars to search for signs of life in 2018.
Beagle 2 Mars wreckage infographic