The British-built Beagle 2 began its fall to Mars on Dec. 19, 2003. It was expected to land on the Red Planet on Christmas Day and begin its search for alien life (its name is a nod to Charles Darwin's HMS Beagle). But it was never heard from again. Now, high-resolution images snapped over the last two years by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show the probe essentially just where it ought to be, within three miles of its target landing location, the BBC reports. It also appears intact. So what happened? The theory based on the images is that one or two of the probe's four "petals" holding its solar panels didn't deploy, perhaps due to a bad bounce or an airbag "not separating sufficiently from the lander," mission manager Prof. Mark Sims says. "Without full deployment, there is no way we could have communicated with it as the radio frequency antenna was under the solar panels."
The BBC now calls it "one of [the] most glorious near-misses in the history of British exploration," and UK Space Agency scientists say the mission needs to be relabeled "a great success." As Sims puts it, the Beagle 2 achieved a trio of feats: landing on Mars, managing to enter its atmosphere, and being the first "controlled landing" on another planet. The BBC reports the probe can't be brought back to life, but "this is not the end of the story," says Sims. "We will do more imaging and analysis." The discovery is bittersweet as it follows the death of principal investigator Colin Pillinger last year. He "would be putting in his grant application to go and fix it," a researcher says, per the Telegraph. His daughter adds, "He would love that this could inspire that next generation to do Beagle 3." (In more Mars news, click for a recent "oh my gosh moment.")