The long-lost, dustbin-lid sized British Mars lander Beagle 2 - whose fate had been unknown since it departed from its Mars Express mothership in orbit above the red planet on Christmas Day 2003 - seems likely to have been found at last.
The UK Space Agency has scheduled a press briefing on the Beagle for Friday and is refusing to discuss details in advance. However reports have it that boffins from NASA involved in managing the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) instrument aboard the American agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be at the briefing.
“HiRise is the only camera at Mars that can see former spacecraft like Beagle 2. It’s definitely pretty close to its intended landing spot, no matter what. It entered the atmosphere at the right time and place,” said Shane Byrne, an Arizona university scientist on the HiRISE team quoted by the Guardian. Apparently NASA has been asked to keep details of the discovery under wraps ahead of Friday's briefing.
Beagle 2 travelled to Mars aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express craft, which remains in orbit there. The diminutive British lander, built using different management arrangements from most spacecraft, was generally regarded as the brainchild of colourful scientist Professor Colin Pillinger - who has been described as "a proper British boffin".
The little lander detached from Mars Express on schedule, but was then never heard from again. The NASA HiRISE team have been actively searching for it for some time.
HiRISE has already managed to pick out the locations of various other human machines on the surface of Mars, including the Viking landers of the 1970s and the famous Curiosity and Opportunity rovers. It would appear that now the final resting place of the unfortunately defunct Beagle 2 has been discovered.
It's possible that the HiRISE imagery will offer some clue as to why the Beagle failed to get in touch - but mysteries may well remain, as even HiRISE will probably be offering just a few pixels of information.
We'll all know more on Friday - but sadly the information will come too late for Professor Pillinger, who passed away last year. ®