updated 11/2/2004 4:51:51 PM ET 2004-11-02T21:51:51

A failed European mission to land a probe on Mars last year was hampered by late funding from the British government and tensions between groups conducting the flight, a parliamentary committee said Tuesday.

The tiny Beagle 2 craft was supposed to touch down on the Red Planet to begin its search for life on Christmas Day 2003, but scientists have found no trace of the lander. An internal report by the British-led team concluded that electronic glitches, an unusually thin Martian atmosphere or a damaged heat shield. could have thwarted the mission

But Parliament's Science and Technology Committee said the mission was damaged from the outset by the government's initial failure to guarantee the project financially.

"As a result, the scientists had to go chasing celebrities for sponsorship when they might have been testing rockets," said committee chairman Ian Gibson.

There was no immediate comment from the government.

The committee said the lack of initial funding undermined the mission's credibility and that the consortium behind the effort was held together by an amateurish "gentleman's agreement." The government eventually invested some $45.75 million paid in six parts over a three year period. The private sector provided a further $80.5 million.

The project was also hampered by tension between Beagle's British team and the European Space Agency, whose Mars Express orbiter carried the probe into space, it said.

The strained relationship was "fueled at least by the team's desire to retain the British branding of the project," the committee said, adding that future missions should be managed by the ESA.

"Future missions must be properly funded and managed as one integrated project, by the European Space Agency," added Gibson.

Getting a working spacecraft to Mars has proven frustratingly difficult. Several vehicles, most recently NASA's 1999 Mars Polar Lander, have been lost on landing. The Soviet Mars-3 lander touched down safely in 1971 but failed after sending data for only 20 seconds.

The successful entry and data collection of two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, just weeks after Beagle 2's disappearance embarrassed the British team.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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