A British-built space probe which vanished 11 years ago has been found on the surface of Mars, making it the first European spacecraft to land successfully on the red planet.

Beagle 2, part of a European Space Agency's Mars Express mission searching for extraterrestrial life, had been due to land on Mars on December 25, 2003, but disappeared on December 19. 

Space experts at London's Royal Society Scientific Institution said on Friday that the tiny Mars lander had been found in recent images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

"The entry, descent and landing sequence for Beagle 2 worked and the lander did successfully touch down on Mars on Christmas Day 2003," the UK Space Agency said in a statement.

Leicester University's Mark Sims, Beagle 2's mission manager, said that while the spacecraft had failed to communicate any data from Mars, it had succeeded in getting to its target, landing, and inspiring scientists.

"Overall, I would say Beagle 2 was a great success," Sims said, adding that the find was exciting, frustrating and "tinged with sadness" because its creator Colin Pillinger did not live to see it. 

Successful landing

The discovery made Beagle 2 the first European spacecraft to land successfully on Mars.

The probe was named after HMS Beagle, the ship which carried Charles Darwin on a journey to South America and the Pacific in the 1830s, which helped him develop his theory of evolution.

The Beagle 2, shaped like a giant pocket watch, rode piggy-back to Mars aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express in 2003.

It took off from the Russian-operated Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in the first European mission to explore another planet.

The mission's call-sign was composed by the Britpop band Blur and the "test card" used to calibrate the probe's cameras after the landing was painted by British artist Damien Hirst.

Source: Agencies