The Beagle 2 British Mars lander

The Beagle 2 British Mars lander was a Mars lander initially mounted on the top deck of the Mars Express Orbiter. A lander is a spacecraft which descends toward and comes to rest on the surface of an astronomical body. By contrast with an impact probe, which makes a hard landing and is damaged or destroyed so ceases to function after reaching the surface, a lander makes a soft landing after which the probe remains functional.

Beagle 2 was declared lost after no communications were received following the scheduled landing on Mars. Attempts at contact were made for over a month after the expected landing on December 25, 2003. A board of inquiry was appointed to look into the reason for the failure and released its report on August 24, 2004. No concrete reason for the space probe’s failure was determined. Factors that were considered as plausible causes of the failure were unusually thin atmosphere over the landing site, electronic glitches, a gas bag puncture, damage to a heat shield, a broken communications antenna, and collision with an unforeseen object.

The Beagle 2 is a British-led effort as part of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission. It is named after the HMS Beagle, the ship which carried Charles Darwin on the voyage which led to his discovery of natural selection and evolution. The exact cost of Beagle 2 is not known, but most estimates are roughly around seventy million dollars.

Mars Express

Mars Express is a space exploration mission being conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA). The Mars Express mission is exploring the planet Mars, and is the first planetary mission attempted by the agency. “Express” originally referred to the speed and efficiency with which the spacecraft was designed and built. However, it also describes the spacecraft’s relatively short interplanetary voyage, a result of being launched when the orbits of Earth and Mars brought them closer than they had been in about sixty thousand years.

Mars Express consists of two parts, the Mars Express Orbiter and Beagle 2, a lander designed to perform exobiology and geochemistry research. Although the lander failed to fully deploy after it landed on the Martian surface, the orbiter has been successfully performing scientific measurements since early 2004, namely, high-resolution imaging and mineralogical mapping of the surface, radar sounding of the subsurface structure down to the permafrost, precise determination of the atmospheric circulation and composition, and study of the interaction of the atmosphere with the interplanetary medium.

The Beagle 2 British Mars lander

The Beagle 2 British Mars lander was released on a ballistic trajectory towards Mars from the Orbiter on December 19, 2003 on a course to land on Mars on December 25, 2003. Isidis Planitia, a large flat region that overlies the boundary between the ancient highlands and the northern plains of Mars (a plain located inside a giant impact basin on Mars), was chosen as the landing site. No signals were received following the scheduled landing and after over a month of attempts at contact the mission was declared lost. A board of inquiry has been appointed to look into the reason for the failure.

The packed probe on Earth weighed sixty-nine kilograms. The lander inside weighed thirty-three kilograms. Of this, nine kilograms were taken up by the science package. Beagle 2 would have not return home. It would have carried out all its analysis of rocks, soil and the atmosphere in-situ on Mars, controlled remotely from Earth. The return (telemetry) link from Beagle 2 to Odyssey and Mars Express is 401.56 MHz. The forward (command) link from Mars Express and Odyssey is 437.1 MHz. Both are UHF.

The lander was expected to operate for about one hundred and eighty days and an extended mission of up to one Martian year (six hundred and eighty Earth days) was considered possible. The Beagle 2 lander objectives were to characterise the landing site geology, mineralogy, geochemistry and oxidation state, the physical properties of the atmosphere and surface layers, collect data on Martian meteorology and climatology, and search for signatures of life.

The Beagle 2 British Mars lander’s legal status

What are space probes? They are space object. The term Object in reference to outer space was first used in 1961 in General Assembly Resolution 1721 (XVI) titled International cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space to describe any object launched by States into outer space. Professor Bin Cheng, a world authority on International Air and Space Law, has noted that members of the COPUOS during negotiations over the space treaties treated spacecraft and space vehicles as synonymous terms. The Space Object can be considered as the conventional launcher, the reusable launcher, the satellite, the orbital station, the probe, the impactor, the space telescope…

The term “space object” is not precisely defined by the Onusian space treaties. Let’s note that the five outer space treaties use such phrases as “objects launched into outer space”, object placed “in orbit around the Earth”, “in orbit around or other trajectory to or around the Moon”, or “around other celestial bodies within the solar system, other than the Earth”. Some of the treaties refer also to “spacecraft”, or “landed or constructed on a celestial body”, “man-made space objects”, “space vehicle”, “supplies”, “equipment”, “installations”, “facilities” and “stations”.

Let’s remember that “A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose”, article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969. In addition, “Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31: (a) leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure; or (b) leads to a result which is manifestly absurd or unreasonable”, article 32 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969.

Let’s recall that a space object causing damage triggers international third-party liability under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (entered into force in September 1972). Article I (d) of which enounces that “the term space object includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof”. Its Article II adds that “A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight”.

A space object requires, thanks to the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in September 1976), registration. Article II of which states that “When a space object is launched into Earth orbit or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry which it shall maintain. Each launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry”.

Finally, the term space object effectively triggers application of much of both the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force in October 1967) and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in December 1968). Article VII of the first declares that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

Article 5 of the latter states that “1. Each Contracting Party which receives information or discovers that a space object or its component parts has returned to Earth in territory under its jurisdiction or on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State, shall notify the launching authority and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. 2. Each Contracting Party having jurisdiction over the territory on which a space object or its component parts has been discovered shall, upon the request of the launching authority and with assistance from that authority if requested, take such steps as it finds practicable to recover the object or component parts. 3. Upon request of the launching authority, objects launched into outer space or their component parts found beyond the territorial limits of the launching authority shall be returned to or held at the disposal of representatives of the launching authority, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

The Outer Space Treaty doesn’t really provide a definition for “object launched into outer space” other than an indication in Article VIII that it includes the “component parts” of the “object launched into outer space”. It states that “A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

We can conclude by saying that the Beagle 2 British Mars lander, a Mars lander initially mounted on the top deck of the Mars Express Orbiter, was a space object.