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Inquiry Blames Organizational Failures for Beagle Loss

An official probe into Europe's doomed Beagle 2 Mars lander, which vanished without a single bleep last December, has blamed mismanagement for the disaster. But, it hasn't ruled out another mission to the red planet.

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Lost in space

On December 19, Britain's much-hyped Beagle 2 Martian lander designed to look specifically for life on the Red Planet detached successfully from its mother ship, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express Orbiter.

The jubilation among scientists however was short-lived. The tiny space probe, which was supposed to touch down on Mars on Christmas Day, went completely silent and didn't send back a signal.

Hope finally turned to resignation and by February, scientists and engineers accepted that their ambitious mission had been lost. It was speculated that Beagle 2 may have smashed into the Martian surface as its parachute may have failed or faulty wiring could have reduced it to ashes.

Bildgalerie Mars Countdown zur ESA-Mission Mars Express

Artist's impression showing the Beagle 2 lander on Mars.

Beagle 2's exact fate may never be known, but an independent official investigation jointly commissioned by the British government and the ESA into the doomed mission attempted this week to pinpoint the lessons that could be learned from the debacle.

The full report into the loss of the Beagle 2 Mars lander will not be published in order to protect sensitive commercial interests behind the project. But the commission, which has interviewed the major participants in the mission, has issued a list of recommendations generated from the probe.

Organizational failures at fault

Britain's science minister, Lord David John Sainsbury said that no single technical failure was to blame but suggested that scientists may have overestimated the success of the ambitious project.

"It's now clear that the very high potential scientific benefits of the project may have contributed to a collective institutional underestimate of ways to identify and mitigate the risks," Sainsbury said.

The inquiry also lay the blame on organizational shortcomings.

"Failure was institutional," David Southwood, ESA's director of science, told a media briefing in London. "We were working in a system which wasn't right, where the organizational structures weren't right and people didn't have the right level of empowerment, authority or resources."

Insufficient funding at the wrong time

The British government invested more than $40 million (€33.1 million) into the British-built Martian lander, while the remaining $80 million was financed by private companies.

However Beagle 2's funding levels were hardly criticized by the inquiry. It did however call for future missions to be better "scoped" early on in the planning process to anticipate any possible problems.

Though Beagle 2's engineering was achieved in the tightest of schedules, it was widely believed that end-to-end testing of the probe before the launch was insufficient.

"I don't think that, overall, Beagle had too little money; it just didn't have it at the right time," Southwood said in a reference to the fact that support from both the British government and ESA came late in the life of the project. "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," he said.

"We were right to have a go"

Named after the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his celebrated voyage, Beagle 2 was the brainchild of Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University in Britain.

Mars Express Zeichnung

A drawing of the ESA's Mars Express Orbiter

The size of a garden barbecue set, Beagle 2 was meant to spend six months probing and analyzing rocks on the Martian surface with the help of a robotic arm and send the data back to Earth via the ESA's Mars Express Orbiter (photo).

Pillinger however has remained undeterred by Beagle 2's disappearance. "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."

Another Mars mission?

Pillinger urged ESA to launch a replacement as soon as possible and has called for the creation of a British space agency such as NASA in the United States.

"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," Pillinger said. "You have to give the engineers a chance. So I am asking ESA to make the earliest possible decision to go to Mars again."

That could happen sooner than expected.

Despite the odds -- two thirds of all missions to Mars have ended in failure -- Sainsbury has indicated they might give the mission another shot. "I am sure we will go back to Mars and we need to look at the best way of doing this and I hope something like Beagle will be part of it," he said.

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