ESA Licks Wounds, But Beagle's Loss Remains a Mystery

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Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1226-1227
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1226a

LONDON—No one may ever know what happened to Beagle 2, the diminutive British spacecraft that was due to land on Mars last Christmas Day but has remained stubbornly silent ever since. But the consequences of its loss, detailed at a press conference here earlier this week, will profoundly change how Europe manages future space missions.

At the briefing the British government and the European Space Agency (ESA) released a set of 19 recommendations from a postmortem, sans body, of Beagle 2. But they withheld the bulk of the report, citing commercial aerospace secrets. Although the inquiry found no single technical reason to explain the failure, it noted a number of institutional failings that raised the mission's risk level, said David Southwood, ESA's director of science. “No one was to blame, but everyone was to blame,” said Southwood, who criticized the “entrepreneurial” style in which Beagle 2 was run.

Beagle 2 and its “mother ship” Mars Express were born of another failure: Russia's Mars 96 mission, lost after an unsuccessful launch. Many European teams had contributed to that spacecraft, and in 1997, ESA opted to use backup instruments and expertise to launch its own mission. The plan included space for a small lander, and Beagle 2, led by Colin Pillinger of the Open University in Milton Keynes, won the slot. Pillinger embarked on a media campaign to persuade companies to pony up. Although he secured artistic contributions from the rock band Blur and artist Damien Hirst, commercial sponsors proved elusive. In the end, Beagle 2's $76 million cost was met by the Open University, contractor EADS Astrium, various U.K. ministries and agencies, and ESA.

The way we were.

Colin Pillinger shows off a full-scale model of Beagle 2.


On 19 December 2003, only a few days from Mars, Beagle 2 separated from Mars Express, apparently faultlessly. Because of the probe's tiny size, roughly that of a car tire, the team had opted to forgo a telemetry link to relay how the descent was going. With no hard data to go on, Southwood listed a number of possible scenarios for Beagle 2's loss. The martian atmosphere could have been more dense—or less dense—than expected that day, causing the craft to bounce off the atmosphere, burn up, or descend too fast. Once in the atmosphere, the craft was designed to jettison its covers, deploy a parachute, and inflate its air bags before impact. Anticipated shortcomings in air-bag performance had forced the Beagle 2 team to redesign the parachute on the eve of the mission. The covers might have become entangled with the parachute, or the chute might have wrapped around the lander, trapping it in a cocoon, Southwood said.

The inquiry saved its toughest talk for management. “The lander was treated as an instrument, not as part of the spacecraft,” said U.K. science minister David Sainsbury. ESA had limited control over Beagle 2, noted Southwood, essentially ensuring that it was safe to launch and would not compromise Mars Express or contaminate the surface. As a result, the recommendations specify that a national agency or ESA oversee future landers, full funding be agreed before approval, more resources be spent on testing, and communications be adequate to monitor landings.

At the press conference, Pillinger made light of the recommendations, calling them “motherhood statements.” “We gave Beagle the best shot we could within the constraints imposed on us,” he said. “If you want to add some spice to people's lives, you have to take some risks.” Others see a more serious take-home message. “It's a pretty thorough indictment of the way the project was managed,” says space policy analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Pillinger said he would be pushing ESA to launch a new Beagle at the earliest opportunity. Southwood said ESA will consult with the scientific community first, but he foresees a simple lander, to be launched in 2009, again focusing on astrobiology. He hoped to have a plan in place for a meeting of European ministers this fall.

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