The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken direct images of the MSL Curiosity rover, its parachute, heat shield and sky crane. Could it image, or has it even already, the failed Mars Express lander with its Beagle 2 rover? If it can't, then for what reason? Would such an image be likely to give clues to why it failed?


Maybe. A search of University of Arizona's HiRISE catalog reveals 22 images, most captioned 'Search for Beagle 2.' Page 2 of the search leads us to the following image: Portion of Beagle 2 Landing Ellipse in Isidis Planitia cut b: color image

Or maybe not: see David's comment below. From the Wikipedia article:

On 20 December 2005, Professor Pillinger released specially processed images from the Mars Global Surveyor which suggested that Beagle 2 came down in a crater at the landing site on Isidis Planitia.(4) It was claimed that the blurry images show the primary impact site as a dark patch and, a short distance away, Beagle 2 surrounded by the deflated airbags and with its solar panels extended.(5)

annotated first image

However, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera subsequently observed the area, in February 2007, and revealed that the crater was empty.(6)

See also: Map of all Mars landing sites, failed and successful

EDIT: According to this January 16th JPL article, MRO has finally located the Beagle2.

A set of three observations with the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera shows Beagle 2 partially deployed on the surface of the planet, ending the mystery of what happened to the mission more than a decade ago. They show that the lander survived its Dec. 25, 2003, touchdown enough to at least partially deploy its solar arrays.

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Subsequent re-imaging and analysis by the Beagle 2 team, the HiRISE team and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, have confirmed that the targets discovered are of the correct size, shape, color and dispersion to be Beagle 2. JPL planetary geologist Tim Parker, who has assisted in the search and processed some of the images said, "I've been looking over the objects in the images carefully, and I'm convinced that these are Beagle 2 hardware."

Analysis of the images indicates what appears to be a partially deployed configuration, with what is thought to be the rear cover with its pilot/drogue chute (still attached) and main parachute close by. Due to the small size of Beagle 2 (less than 7 feet, or 2 meters across for the deployed lander) it is right at the limit of detection of HiRISE, the highest-resolution camera orbiting Mars. The targets are within the expected landing area at a distance of about three miles (five kilometers) from its center.

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  • $\begingroup$ That crater looks like it's about as deep as it is wide, judging from the lower left inner edge of it. But it could of course be an illusion, maybe it's the parashute spread out and partly covered. The heat shield of MSL was released at 160 m/s and it didn't create much of a crater. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff May 9 '14 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ That photo is taken as evidence of not being of Beagle 2. An earlier photo by the Mar Global Surveyor of that same area convinced the Beagle 2 project team that that was the site where Beagle 2 crashed. That Mars Global Surveyor photo was incredibly fuzzy, worse than face on Mars fuzzy. This improved photo told analysts "oops, not there." $\endgroup$ – David Hammen May 9 '14 at 17:28

The reason why HiRISE (The camera on MRO that took the images mentioned) was able to take those pictures is that it knew exactly where the object landed. It has in fact attempted to find the Beagle 2 rover, which is a difficult task. There's an excellent article on the attempt on the HiRISE website. Depending on exactly what happened, different things might be seen, letting one know exactly where in the EDL process the lander failed. However, finding it is quite difficult, without knowing where to look for it.

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  • $\begingroup$ The HiRISE website says that none of the six crashed Soviet landers have been found either. I suppose that's true for the crashed NASA Polar Lander too, since it isn't mentioned. Space flight and astronomy is a wild mix of precision and uncertanties. The deceleration of the Pioneer probes could be measured with absurd accuracy tens of times further away than Mars. But they don't know where probes land on Mars? Is it the atmosphere which displaces them randomly? Is that type of problem history now, given the triumphant MSL landing which the world could follow in (almost) live video? $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff May 9 '14 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ Methods for determining where an object is require a radio beacon, or else they have to guess. A nominal landing ellipse is around 2000 square km, give or take. That assumes a correct deployment sequence. Not knowing if, say, a parachute failed vs something else, it's really hard to predict. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto May 11 '14 at 14:56

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