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Sharper image shows Beagle-2 probe sitting intact on Mars

A new imaging technique may finally help scientists figure out what went wrong with a Mars lander that was lost more than a decade ago. The European Space Agency (ESO) launched its Mars Express mission back in 2003, and just a few months later it reached the Red Planet. The satellite is still functional in orbit of Mars, but the lander it was supposed to deploy in late 2003 was not so lucky. The Beagle-2 lander was lost when it failed to report in from the surface.

NASA rediscovered the lander last year, but the resolution of the images made it hard to tell what had happened. Now, a new approach to processing those images is being employed at University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory. When the images came out last year from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera, the resolution was roughly 30cm per pixel. It was enough to identify the lander, but scientists couldn’t tell if it was intact.

The speculation prior to this new analysis was that several of the Beagle-2’s solar panels failed to deploy. These petal-like components folded out from the main body of the device, so an undeployed panel would have blocked the radio. The original HiRISE image is just a blob, but researchers Jan-Peter Muller and Yu Tao used a technique called Super-Resolution Restoration (SRR) to improve the image with the aid of additional frames from the NASA orbiter. By stacking these images, SRR boosts the effective resolution of the final product to 5cm per pixel.

The processed image clearly shows the petal-like structure of the Beagle-2, and indeed, it’s lopsided. This backs the assertion that the probe landed safely, but one of the panels failed to deploy. It’s a good test of SRR, which is a very computationally intensive procedure. The stacked images need to be processed for several days on a 224-core Linux server cluster. It’s a good test of the system, though. In the future, SRR could be used to improve the effective resolution of existing Mars probes without waiting on new hardware to make the journey.

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