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[Photo: Beagle 2 visualisation] Did UFO down Beagle?

Leicester Mercury story, March 2004

Scientists have come up with a new theory that the missing Beagle 2 probe may have had a close encounter with a UFO.

Mission controllers are studying a mysterious blot on an image taken moments after the robot spun off from mothership Mars Express to start its descent to the Red Planet.

Experts are trying to work out if the dot is down to a camera fault, or if Beagle 2 was brought down by some kind of strange object.

Scientists admit it is a long shot, and are exploring many other options, but as the mystery surrounding the missing robot deepens, nothing seems too extraordinary.

Beagle 2 Mission Manager Dr Mark Sims, from the University of Leicester's Space Research Centre, said: "There is a little dot within the image.

"We don't know what it is or what it means.

"It could be a feature of the optics of the camera or bits of spacecraft. It could be nothing but it could be everything. It's a case of wait and see. It is very much a work in progress at the moment."

Contact was lost with Beagle 2 on Christmas Day, when it was due to separate from the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter before landing on the planet.

Scientists have since tried repeatedly to contact the lander, without success.

Dr Sims said the team was going over all of its data again to try to find out what caused the probe to vanish.

Mission controllers told a London meeting that they were also considering the possibility that Beagle 2 simply crashed on the surface of Mars because the atmosphere on the planet was less dense than expected.

Scientists said they were examining photographs of the landing site that show four bright spots, dubbed the 'string of pearls', that might be Beagle 2's remains.

Dr Sims said: "We're in forensic mode at the moment. We're looking at all the possibilities. It's like looking at a crime scene, but we don't know what crime has been committed. We may never know what happened, but everything we learn is a lesson for the future."

Professor Colin Pillinger, the lead scientist on the expedition, met the public during a webcast last night at the Royal Society in London to answer questions about what went wrong with the 45 million space probe.

Speaking before the event, Mr Pillinger said he was delighted to have sparked a passion for space exploration among what is now being dubbed the Beagle Generation.

He is already canvassing for more funds and sponsorship for another mission sending probes to Mars as early as 2007.

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Last updated: 10 March 2004 9:30
Created by: Barbara Whiteman

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