Image: Beagle 2
This artist's conception shows the Beagle 2 lander with its solar panels unfolded, its robotic arm at the ready and a burrowing sampler known as the Mole in action.
updated 8/31/2004 12:29:13 PM ET 2004-08-31T16:29:13

The British team that built the space probe for Europe's doomed mission to Mars conceded Tuesday that any future ventures to the Red Planet should have better funding and detection systems for potential problems.

An internal report into the loss of the Beagle 2 lander turned up little more than an official investigation reported earlier this year, finding no concrete reason for the probe's failure to land on Mars as scheduled on Christmas Day 2003.

The tiny lander has not been heard from since it was ejected from a European Space Agency orbiter in mid-December. High-resolution mapping of the landing site has not detected any sign of Beagle 2 or any debris.

"My nightmare is that Beagle 2 is on the surface of Mars trying to talk to us, and there's a broken cable that stops it," said mission manager Mark Sims. "That would be soul-destroying."

Questions raised
The loss of the probe — into which the government plowed more than $40 million  and the private sector another $80 million — prompted questions in Britain about Europe's ability to take part in the race to Mars.

The successful entry and data collection of two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, just weeks after Beagle 2's disappearance rubbed salt into the wound.

Tuesday's report suggested several potential factors that could have thwarted the European mission: unusually thin atmosphere over the landing site, electronic glitches, a gas bag puncture, damage to a heat shield, a broken communications antenna, and collision with an unforeseen object.

The Beagle 2 team said their biggest mistake was to treat the British lander as an "add-on" to ESA's Mars Express orbiter, meaning it was not given equivalent funding and resources.

A future mission should treat a Mars lander as an integral part of the whole spacecraft rather than one of its instruments, the report said.

Professor Colin Pillinger, the lead scientist for Beagle 2 and the public face of the mission, said he has already written to NASA asking for a piggyback ride on one of its rovers to Mars.

However, he said he would prefer a European program.

"The team is actually looking at the future. We're looking at any opportunity and every opportunity," he said.

What went wrong?
The six-month internal investigation by the Beagle 2 team found that an instrument on the Mars Express showed evidence of unusually low atmospheric density. Both the NASA rovers also encountered surprisingly low atmospheric resistance during their landings.

Unexpectedly thin air would mean that Beagle 2's parachutes and cushioning air bags may have been deployed too late.

"Improved characterization of the Martian atmosphere is, in the view of the Beagle 2 team, critical to the success of future missions," the report said.

The report said the analysis of the ejection images show that Beagle 2 was dispatched from Mars Express at the correct velocity and spin rate.

Two large craters were discovered within the predicted landing site, but the report said the chances of the probe dropping into them were extremely low.

The report added there was no reason to doubt the operation of the main parachute, a theory put forward early in the investigations.

Probe's contribution
The report said Beagle 2, which was to search for signs of Martian life, should be remembered for advancing planetary lander technology in Europe and achieving unprecedented levels of public interest and support for planetary science.

The findings of an official report in May into the loss of the lander were kept secret by the British government and the European Space Agency, which instead issued a list of recommendations for future missions to the Red Planet.

Science Minister Lord Sainsbury had suggested that scientists had overestimated the success of the mission and delivered veiled criticisms of the ambitious project by recommending better management and funding of any future ventures.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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