Mars exploration and the search for life is a priority says UK science minister

December 29, 2003

The latest attempts to communicate with Beagle 2 via the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank and the Mars Odyssey spacecraft have been unsuccessful. However, the Beagle 2 team has not given up hope and continues to be optimistic that efforts to contact the lander will eventually be successful.

This message was also reinforced by Lord Sainsbury, UK Minister for Science and Innovation, who this morning joined members of the Beagle 2 team to answer questions about the status of the project.

"While we're disappointed that things have not gone according to plan, we are determined that the search should go on, both the search to make contact with Beagle 2 and also (the search) to answer the long term question about whether there is life on Mars," said Lord Sainsbury.

"There's clearly still a good opportunity to make contact with Beagle 2 with Mars Express when it comes into action, and that has to be the first priority at this point. I think everything is being done by the 'tiger team' in Leicester to make contact with Beagle 2 and I want to wish them every success in their efforts."

"We are looking at a number of possible failure modes that we might do something about," said Dr. Mark Sims, Beagle 2 mission manager from the University of Leicester.

"We are working under the assumption that Beagle 2 is on the surface of Mars and for some reason cannot communicate to us. In particular, we're looking at two major issues. One is communications, and there are also related timing and software issues.

"We've got a few more Odyssey contacts, the last one being on 31 December. Then we have four contacts with Mars Express already pre-programmed into Beagle, assuming the software is running, on 6, 12, 13 and 17. The 6 and 12 are when Mars Express is manoeuvring into its final orbit, so they are not optimum for Beagle 2 communications. The 13th and 17th are very good opportunities for Mars Express."

According to Dr. Sims, one of the scenarios the team was investigating - a timer and hardware reset - now seems unlikely, and can probably be ruled out. However, other possible slips of the onboard time may have been caused by software or problems of copying data between various parts of memory. Possibly, all of the stored command times have been lost.

"None of these can yet be eliminated," he said.

After the tenth contact attempt, Beagle 2 will move into communication search mode 1 (CSM 1), taking advantage of the ability of the software on board Beagle 2 to recognise when dawn and dusk occur on Mars by measuring the current feeding from the solar arrays.

"When we get into CSM 1 mode, Beagle 2 will start putting additional contacts on its time line, independent of the clock value," said Mark Sims. "This will happen after 31 December."

The team is also looking at sending blind commands to Beagle 2. This is helped by Beagle going into CSM 1 mode.

"The team has come up with a method of fooling the receiver into accepting commands without having to talk back to the orbiter," said Dr. Sims. "We have an agreement with JPL to reconfigure Odyssey to provisionally attempt this on 31 December, the last programmed Odyssey pass."

Malin Science Systems has also provided the Beagle 2 team with a picture of the landing site taken by the camera on Mars Global Surveyor 20 minutes after the spacecraft's scheduled touchdown. It shows that the weather was quite good on the day Beagle landed, so it was unlikely to be a factor in the descent. The next opportunity to image the landing site with Mars Global Surveyor will not be until 5 January.

The image showing the centre of Beagle 2's landing ellipse also shows a 1 km wide crater. There is just an outside possibility that the lander could have touched down inside this crater, resulting in problems caused by steep slopes, large number of rocks or disruption to communication from the lander. This image is now available on the Beagle 2 and PPARC Web sites (see below).

While the Lander Operations Control Centre in Leicester continues its efforts to communicate with the Beagle 2, Lord Sainsbury took the opportunity to inform the media that the UK government is keen to continue the innovative robotic exploration effort begun with the lander.

"Long term we need to be working with ESA to ensure that in some form there is a Beagle 3 which takes forwards this technology," he said. "I very much hope that the Aurora programme, which is now being developed by ESA, will take forward this kind of robotic exploration.

"We've always recognised that Beagle 2 was a high risk project, and we must avoid the temptation in future to only do low risk projects.

"I'd like to use this opportunity to add my thanks to all those helping our efforts to make contact with Beagle 2. I think the amount of international collaboration one gets on these occasions is very, very impressive and very encouraging to the team."

"We should not ignore the importance of Mars Express, which has three British-designed instruments on board and which looks set for success," he added.

"Finally, can I use this opportunity to wish the Americans every success with its two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity."

Science and Technology Facilities Council

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