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Last Updated: Monday, 24 May, 2004, 09:03 GMT 10:03 UK
Beagle mission 'poorly managed'
Beagle moves away from Mars Express
The last contact: Beagle is ejected from Mars Express
The European Space Agency says poor management must share some blame for the failure of the Beagle 2 mission.

Contact with the Mars probe was lost last December and it is unknown whether the UK-built lander ever made it down to the surface of the Red Planet.

The official inquiry into the loss said there was too little investment at the start of the 50m Beagle project.

But Professor David Southwood, Esa's director of science, said the project overall was not under-funded.

"We won't ever know for sure what went wrong," he said at a media briefing in London. "Maybe new evidence will emerge; perhaps we will get a picture.

"You never know, one day in the future, Europeans walking across the surface of Mars will find Beagle."

Little time

The Commission of Inquiry on Beagle 2, jointly set up in February by the European Space Agency (Esa) and the British National Space Centre (BNSC), has put forward 19 recommendations for the future.

Prof Colin Pillinger, BBC
I am asking Esa to make the earliest possible decision to go to Mars again
Prof Colin Pillinger, Beagle's lead scientist

The commission has interviewed the major participants in the mission - which piggybacked a lift to the Red Planet on the Mars Express orbiter - and reviewed its design and management.

Its report was submitted to the UK's science minister Lord Sainsbury and to Esa's director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain last month. However, it will not be released to the public - only the recommendations.

These focus mainly on organisational issues and relate to how future missions should be handled differently.

They call for decisions to be made early in a project's development.

With Beagle, because it was a late "add-on" to Mars Express - there was always the concern that the lander's engineers were being asked to do too much in too short a space of time.

What happened to Beagle 2 as it headed to Mars?

And although tremendous engineering was achieved in the tightest of schedules, insufficient end-to-end testing of the probe took place before it launched.

This was not the way to approach such a risky mission, Professor Southwood said, and matters were not helped by the way Beagle had to chase funding.

"I don't think that, overall, Beagle had too little money; it just didn't have it at the right time.

"It should have had it at the beginning and there should have been a contracting authority to make sure the mission was put together in a way that allowed managers to control costs effectively."

Possible reasons

No one has been able to determine what actually happened to Beagle. The last contact with the probe was an image taken by Mars Express on 19 December as the lander raced away towards its planned Christmas Day touchdown on the planet.

Aerial surveys by the US Mars Global Surveyor orbiter and sweeps by Earth-based radio telescopes have found no sign of Beagle.

Professor Southwood said it was possible that:

  • Beagle entered an atmosphere that was thinner than expected, causing the probe to approach the surface too fast;
  • the probe's parachute or cushioning airbags failed to deploy or deployed at the wrong time;
  • Beagle's backshell or heatshield tangled with the parachute preventing it from opening properly;
  • Beagle became wrapped up in its airbags or parachute on the surface and could not open.
However, the Esa official said any number of scenarios could be postulated.

Certainly, some have expressed concerns about the testing of the airbags and whether they would perform the job asked of them.

There were worries also about Beagle's radar altimeter that was to have monitored its height.

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

New space agency

Professor Colin Pillinger, Beagle's lead scientist, believes the probe may have been lost because the atmosphere was thinner than anticipated - which would have meant the craft was travelling too fast to survive the landing.

"We gave Beagle the very best shot we could within the constraints that were placed upon us," he said. "We were right to have a go."

He urged Esa to launch a replacement for Beagle 2 at the earliest opportunity.

Artists impression of Beagle 2 on Mars, Beagle 2
A bold idea that did not come off, built in a way that will not be repeated
Our science editor Dr David Whitehouse

"We've heard from the recommendations that if we don't make decisions early, we end up in the situation that you have no way of retiring the risks; you have to give the engineers a chance. So I am asking Esa to make the earliest possible decision to go to Mars again."

He also said it was time the UK had a proper space agency to direct its off-planet efforts.

One key recommendation for the future is that all landers carry a transmitter that would allow their descent to the surface to be followed. This was something the successful US rovers did.

Another is that high risk missions such as Beagle should never again have to seek sponsorship funding. They should always be fully publicly funded, Professor Southwood stated.

"The bottom line for me is that no single event led to failure and no single individual made a bad decision.

"However, failure was institutional. We were working in a system which wasn't right, where the organisational structures weren't right and people didn't have the right level of empowerment, authority or resources."

The BBC's David Shukman
"This was Britain's boldest mission into space"

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