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Lost UK spacecraft did land on Mars

A £50 million British spacecraft which disappeared as it approached Mars in search of alien life more than a decade ago did land on the Red Planet - but we may never know what secrets it contains.

The Beagle 2, missing presumed destroyed since December 2003, touched down just three miles from its intended landing site, images taken by Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released today show.

The scientists behind the project believe that not all its solar panels deployed after it landed on Christmas Day, leaving it unable to send a signal back to Earth

Because of the partial deployment, it will not be possible to recover Beagle 2 and its data, but the team said it could have started working to some extent and have enough power to still be operating today.

The landing makes it the first British and European spacecraft to touch down on Mars.

The revelation was a poignant one for the family of Professor Colin Pillinger, the driving force behind the scheme, who died last May aged 70. His daughter, Shusanah, said: "He would have loved that this shows Beagle 2 landed on Mars."

Professor Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, who was mission manager of the Beagle 2 project, said he was "elated" by the discovery, which brought some closure for the remaining team of scientists.

He put the failure to operate down to "bad luck", adding: "There might be power, it might still be working. It might be saying 'I'm here, I'm here, I'm here.'

"The thermal design should be OK to keep it alive. It may have just died because of battery power in the end, because we have only got two of the four (solar) panels opened. We just don't know."

He added: "To be frank, I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars. The images vindicate the hard work put in by many people and companies both here in the UK and around Europe and the world in building Beagle 2.

"The highly-complex entry, descent and landing sequence seems to have worked perfectly and only during the final phases of deployment did Beagle 2 unfortunately run into problems. I view it as a great achievement that the team built Beagle 2 in a little over four years and successfully landed it on the surface of Mars."

The images taken by the Reconnaissance Lander's HiRISE camera from 185 miles above Mars in 2013 and again last year show that the small lander, the size of a large motorcycle tyre, touched down successfully close to its intended landing site in Isidis Planitia.

The scientists said they appear to show the lander partially deployed, with its "pilot chute" still attached and the main parachute close by, as well as what is thought to be a panel.

Because Beagle 2 was less than two metres wide, spotting it was right at the limit of the technology available on the orbiting craft.

Due to the small size of Beagle 2 - less than 2m across for the deployed lander - it is right at the limit of detection of imaging systems orbiting Mars

The photographs were taken in a different area to pictures taken in 2005 which were believed to show the spacecraft.

Dr John Bridges, of the University of Leicester, said the spotted objects "glinted" in the sun but cast no moving shadow.

He added: "This is not just a pile of rocks and sand on the Martian surface. This is an alien object, a man-made object."

Named in honour of Charles Darwin's famous ship, Beagle 2 was a unique space mission in that it was largely funded by private donations and money raised by promotional campaigns led by the late Prof Pillinger.

The probe was carried by the Mars Express spacecraft, which was blasted into space by a Russian rocket from Kazakhstan in June 2003. 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 landing was painted by Damien Hirst.

It was scheduled to put down in a near-equatorial region of Mars known as Isidis Planitia on December 26. But after detaching from the Mars Express and heading for the surface, it was not heard from again.

Various investigations failed to comprehensively determine what happened to it.

Hirst described the discovery as fantastic news, saying: "I can't believe Beagle 2 has been out there all this time and I have a painting on Mars! It's amazing!

"It makes me think that Colin must be looking down on us smiling and still have a hand in it."

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