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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
Beagle 2 was 'too great a risk'
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Beagle, European Space Agency
It may have burnt up in the atmosphere
An inquiry into the loss of the Beagle 2 Mars probe in December will criticise the management of the project and the testing of the lander.

It was to land on Mars on 25 December to look for life, but contact was lost.

The inquiry will say there were not enough checks and balances built into the project and that, overall, it was too great a risk to take.

"Programmatic and organisational" reasons contributed to an increased risk of failure, the report says.

The Commission of Inquiry on Beagle 2, jointly set up in February between the European Space Agency (Esa) and the British National Space Centre (BNSC), will explain its findings on Monday in London.

'Impossible' schedule

The commission has interviewed the major participants in the almost 50m mission and reviewed its design and management.

Last month, a report was submitted to the UK's science minister Lord Sainsbury and the Esa's director general Jean-Jacques Dordain.

Artists impression of Beagle 2 on Mars
What it was meant to do
Without mentioning names, the report concludes that despite the engineering success of building and delivering the probe on the tightest of schedules, too high a level of risk was taken.

In determining what actually happened to the probe, the investigators had an impossible task as they had no data to evaluate. All they had was an image of Beagle 2 after it was ejected from Mars Express.

As a result, the Inquiry has been unable to find any single technical failure but investigators have their suspicions, and the report into Beagle's loss outlines a series of possible ways it could have failed.

It is likely the British-built probe never made it to the Martian surface intact.

Time over

Unlike the successful US Mars landers, which were much bigger and cost 10 times as much, Beagle had no communication during the crucial atmospheric entry and landing phases.

The report makes 19 recommendations about the mission and the lessons that can be learned from it.

Professor Colin Pillinger
Sponsors were not found
It says the project's management lacked focus and that at first it was inadequately funded, and that there was too little time for testing.

"I am not sure it was a well managed process but you have to look at what was achieved," says Mike Healey of Astrium, the major space company involved.

Professor David Southwood, who became Esa's director of science in 2001, once wanted to cancel the project but changed his mind after Astrium became involved.

"Privately, we saw this loss coming. Long before launch, I said I would never allow anything like this again," he says.

Professor Southwood points out the failure is a collective one and that all first attempts to land on Mars end in disappointment.

The Russians have tried and failed and even the Americans, basking in the glory of their exploration rovers, have experienced the "Martian jinx".

Unique mission

It would be fair to say that there has never been a space mission like Beagle 2.

It was conceived by Professor Colin Pillinger, of the UK's Open University, as an "add-on" to Esa's Mars Express mission.

Mars Express was to orbit the Red Planet but Beagle 2 was to land on it and look for life, if it could be built small and light enough, and if it could be paid for.

Colin Pillinger
Colin Pillinger's anxious wait for a signal
So Professor Pillinger started a breakneck project to design and build Beagle 2 (named after the ship that Charles Darwin used) in record time.

Professor Pillinger prepared a business plan and attracted backers explaining how the project could be paid for through a combination of grants and sponsorship.

Thenceforth, Beagle 2 and Professor Pillinger were seldom out of the headlines, publicising the mission with headline-grabbing stunts, often involving pop stars and artists.

Mission insiders have commented on the fact that Professor Pillinger simultaneously led the management of the mission as well as its publicity campaign and fund-raising efforts.

"This may have been too much and resulted in a less-focussed management than was desirable," one said.

Professor Southwood adds: "Colin was trying to raise money while trying to build a spacecraft. Clearly that is a major distraction."

End-to-end testing

In the end, no sponsors came forward to support the project.

Technically, the mission was a close-run thing and all the engineers involved faced, and largely solved, the considerable technical difficulties in making a lander that they believed would survive the descent to the Martian surface.

But the project faced severe time pressures and not all its components were tested to the complete satisfaction of engineers.

"We tested everything individually but we could have done with more end-to-end testing of the system as a whole," says Mike Healey.

Some have expressed concerns about the testing of the airbags that were to cushion Beagle's landing.

There were worries also about the mechanism that should have ejected the probe's protective aeroshell as it descended to the Martian surface; and for Beagle's radar altimeter that was to have monitored its height.

The inquiry says that more high altitude testing of the parachute system would have been desirable.

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