Rumors are swirling that the British Beagle 2 lander โ€” missing since Christmas Day in 2003 โ€” has been spotted on the surface of the Red Planet by NASA's Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Speculation is rampant after the UK Space Agency and the University of Leicester announced a press conference for this coming January 16th to announce an "update" on the failed mission. Intriguingly, researchers working with the HiRise camera on NASA's Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are expected to take part. However, the exact details and subject of the briefing have not been disclosed.

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An Ill-Fated Mission

As part of the ESA's 2003 Mars Express mission, Beagle 2 was supposed to land on Mars on December 25th, 2003. The probe, named after the HMS Beagle that carried Darwin on his famous voyage, was to search for life on Mars, analyze the planet's atmosphere and climate, and survey the landing site's geology, mineralogy, geochemistry, and oxidation state. Beagle 2 was to perform its work in Isidis Planitia, a large and flat sedimentary basin.

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The Beagle 2 was conceived by the late Cambridge scientist Colin Pillinger, whose charismatic approach captured the public's imagination. He died last May at the age of 70.

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(NASA)

During the descent phase, the Beagle 2 craft successfully detached from the Mars Express Orbiter, but what happened after that remains a mystery. Confirmation of landing was never received in the days and weeks following, forcing the Mars Express team to declare Beagle 2 as being officially lost on February 6th, 2004.

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A subsequent inquiry offered four likely scenarios: (1) the probe burnt up in the atmosphere on entry, (2) its parachute or cushioning airbags failed to deploy or were deployed at the wrong time, (3) its backshell got tangled with the parachute preventing it from opening properly, (4) or that the whole thing got caught up in its airbags or parachute on the surface preventing it from opening. It's also possible that the mission planners underestimated the thinness of the Martian atmosphere in their calculations.

Spotted From Above?

Despite the tight-lipped nature of the planned press conference, there's good reason to believe Beagle 2 has been discovered. The HiRise camera (the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) is most certainly capable of accomplishing this, as witnessed by its previous discoveries of the twin Martian Viking landers which touched down in the 1970s. The spacecraft has also captured images of NASA's Phoenix, Curiosity, and Opportunity rovers.

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The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA)

What's more, as The Guardian reports, HiRise mission scientist Shane Byrne has been quoted as saying: "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." Byrne says his team has been asked to keep quite about the details until Friday's announcement.

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And in The Times, a senior space scientist who has reportedly seen the HiRise images is saying that they showed an object "about the right shape and in about the right place," while adding that "It tells us how close it got to the right landing spot and that it was in one piece."

At the same time, a UK Space Agency person said, "Obviously there will be a lot of speculation but we can't say anything at present. It will definitely be of interest."

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An Enduring Cultural Legacy

The Beagle 2 mission may have ended in failure, but its legacy certainly lives on in scifi.

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It inspired the 2005 Doctor Who Christmas special "The Christmas Invasion," in which an unnamed Mars lander goes missing after being captured by an alien species. It also appeared in the 2007 Transformers movie, albeit as a NASA rover. Beagle 2 also made a videogame appearance in Assassin's Creed: Project Legacy's Holiday Set.

We'll be sure to cover the press conference scheduled for this coming Friday.

Sources: The Guardian, Cambridge News, University of Leicester.

Images: Leicester Mercury/PT.

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