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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 November, 2004, 00:09 GMT
'Money woes' foiled Beagle 2 shot
Beagle 2     All rights reserved Beagle 2
The lander failed to make contact on Christmas Day. (All rights reserved Beagle 2)
A report into the loss of British Mars probe Beagle 2 says a failure by the UK government to commit funds early enough undermined the project's credibility.

The House of Commons science and technology select committee report says this could have warned off sponsorship income that the project badly needed.

It left the Beagle consortium with an "amateurish" gentleman's agreement holding it together, says the report.

But the time and effort invested in the project must not be wasted, it adds.

The scientists had to go chasing celebrities for sponsorship when they might have been testing rockets
Dr Ian Gibson MP
Participants have welcomed the report's recognition of the positive effect the project had on British space science.

The report says the 25m of taxpayers' money science minister Lord Sainsbury put toward bailing out the lander was money well spent. But the report emphasises that the necessary funding was not there at the beginning, when it was most needed.

Dr Ian Gibson MP, chairman of the select committee of MPs that produced the report, said: "[The European Space Agency] and the UK wanted a Mars lander on the cheap. The DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] should have been on the pitch getting involved, rather than cheering from the touchline and coming on as a second half substitute when things went wrong.

We couldn't have had anything other than a gentleman's agreement because we didn't have any money
Prof Colin Pillinger, Open University
"As a result, the scientists had to go chasing celebrities for sponsorship when they might have been testing rockets."

Professor David Southwood, the European Space Agency (Esa) director of science told the BBC News website: "The view that things ought to be done differently in future comes across very clearly and that it should be done in a more integrated manner under Esa leadership. That is something I wholeheartedly subscribe to."

The informal arrangements keeping the project together come in for sharp criticism. The report cites as an example the case of Martin-Baker Aircraft. This backer withdrew from the Beagle consortium half way through the project without incurring a penalty.

But Colin Pillinger, lead scientist on Beagle 2, told the BBC News website: "We couldn't have had anything other than a gentleman's agreement because we didn't have any money.

What happened to Beagle 2 as it headed to Mars?

"We couldn't say to someone: 'Look we're paying you loads of money so we'll tell you what to do. We were in a situation where everyone was doing what they could'."

But he added that he believed guaranteed funding was not given at the outset because ministers genuinely did not have the money to give.

"The UK government was not in a position to say yes or no...but if it had had a more entrepreneurial, flexible attitude, then money that has been well spent would have been even better spent," said Professor Southwood.

British determination

Beagle 2 was a robotic laboratory designed to look for life on Mars. The 45m lander was scheduled to put down in a near-equatorial region of the planet known as Isidis Planitia on 25 December 2003.

But despite many attempts to locate the probe, no sign of it - not even any wreckage - has been detected.

The lander was developed separately from the Mars Express "mothership" that carried it to the Red Planet. This arrangement, says the report, "reduced the scope for flexible and co-ordinated management".

Esa, which built Mars Express, initially devolved itself of management responsibilities for Beagle 2. Esa became involved only as its financial contribution rose and as serious concerns were raised about the project.

But, says the report, "if there was some reluctance at Esa to take on the management of the lander, this was matched by the reticence of the Beagle 2 project team to cede any management responsibility to Esa".

The Beagle 2 consortium's leadership was, the MPs claim, determined the project should remain British-led and should have been more willing to accept increased involvement from Esa.

'Secret' report

It also argues that Esa should not have behaved as "a disinterested carrier of a foreign enterprise". But MPs accepted Esa had responded "positively and flexibly" in 2000 to the financial difficulties being faced by the project and helped to keep it alive.

The consortium's ongoing quest for sponsorship income due to the absence of financial guarantees unsettled some at the European Space Agency, opening up an ideological divide of sorts.

According to evidence given to the select committee by Professor Paul Murdin of Cambridge University, French observers thought it "inappropriate for Esa to launch a 'Formula 1 car' covered with advertisements".

According to Professor Southwood: "We were constrained in expressing disquiet in order not to disturb the ongoing quest for external sponsors in Britain."

In addition, MPs slammed the refusal by Esa and the UK government to publish in full their own inquiry report, calling it an "affront to accountability".

A look back at the problems that beset the project

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