I spent some of the morning at the Royal Society at a meeting devoted to Beagle 2 that looked at what went wrong and what happens next. "What next" was the afternoon topic, and so I missed it, but given that this was a Pillinger show, I think it’s a fair bet that the answer was more Beagles, launched on rockets of their own rather than hitch-hiking on a pre-existing orbiter mission.
The morning's what-went-wrong sessions were interesting, if inconclusive. The lack of an entry, descent and landing telemetry link, one that could have sent back data, means that much of this is speculation, and likely to remain so. Pillinger’s line on the telemetry continues to be that a) it couldn’t be done (because there was no suitable on orbit relay asset) and b) the mass of the transmitter required would have meant making unacceptable cuts in the science package, scaling Beagle 2 back to a "me-too" mission rather than a unique scientific opportunity. The question this begs is that, given these limitations, did it make sense to spend that much money on a mission that couldn’t even reveal its own fate? This is a subset of the more general question that still hangs over Beagle 2 – if it could not be done properly, was it worth doing at all?
Anyway, here’s the news. There’s no clear evidence of anything at the landing site visible in MOC images. There are a few scattered bright pixels, including an aligned set of spots dubbed the "string of pearls" which seems to have caught some imaginations, but according to Pillinger Mike Malin, the MOC god, thinks these are all instrument noise (the string runs more or less along a scan line inside the camera). New images of the landing site from Themis and MOC both suggest that the original estimates of the hazards due to craters, rocks and hillocky cones were about right – such features seem to cover around 10% of the site. They wouldn’t all necessarily be deadly, but they do constitute an irreducible hazard.
A new factor that has turned up is that according to one of the Mars Express instruments, Spicam, seems to be showing that the density of the atmosphere at altitudes of 30km to 40km is a good bit lower than was thought. This is the altitude at which Beagle 2 would have been doing a lot of its deceleration, and if there was less atmosphere there to decelerate in that would be bad – opening the possibility that, for instance, the under-impeded lander might have reached the surface before it turned its altimeter on, or, I suppose, at too high a speed for its airbags. Thus it would have transitioned from aerobraking to lithobreaking. However, teh spicam data is not from the landing site, nor, if I heard correctly, from the same time of day as the landing. Also it seems that the Spicam readings on the atmospheric density profile are not backed up by measurements being made by a NASA orbiter at the moment (they said Mars Observer, but I suspect it may be MGS, which is able to compare its TES readings looking down to the rovers' mini-TES readings looking up. But I could be wrong.). The disagreement doesn't mean Spicam's wrong, but it does mean more work is needed. (It's worth noting that both the rovers seem to have been less slowed by teh atmosphere than expected during their entries.)
Perhaps the most intriguing possibility, though, was that something might have gone wrong before or during the spinup and release of the lander from Mars Express on December 19th, back when this blog was a shiny new thing and it was all trees round here (apologies for trope-theft to Sean Geer). At the time, I noticed that the picture of Beagle pulling away had a bright star like object in it, and wondered whether it might be Mars. It wasn’t, and it wasn’t a star, either, and it probably wasn’t an instrumental artefact, though Mark Sims, the man presenting this data and teh Beagle 2 mission manager, seemed to want us to think that was still a possibility. So it could have been some debris falling off one or other of the spacecraft. What’s more, if you look at the Beagle itself in the same image you can see an anomalous light patch in the shadowy part at about two o’clock. That could be nothing, says Sims – but it also could be everything. He was very clear that he didn’t want to speculate further on the matter. They’re looking at the other pictures in the same series to see if there’s anything else to be learned. One interesting detail – though he said the series of pictures confirmed that Beagle had headed off in the right direction at the right speed, he didn’t say whether it confirmed that it had the correct spin rate. The possibility that this picture, of which I was always fond, might be telling us something kind of piqued my interest. If it was just the stray blurry thing, or just the light patch on the spacecraft, that would be one thing. But the two together does seem kind of suggestive. Watch this space.