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Britain learned lessons from Mars probe flop

Britain and the European Space Agency said Monday they had learned from the failure of the Beagle 2 mission to Mars, but kept quiet about the inquiry on the high-profile flop.
/ Source: Reuters

Britain and the European Space Agency said Monday they had learned from the failure of the Beagle 2 mission to seek out life on Mars, but kept a report on the high-profile flop tightly under wrap.

The Beagle 2, named after the ship Charles Darwin sailed in when he formulated his theory of evolution, was built by British scientists for about $89.46 million and hitched a flight to Mars aboard the European Space Agency's orbiter Mars Express.

Beagle was due to crash into Mars in a bouncing ball of airbags and begin looking for signs of life on Christmas Day. But the lander lost contact with earth once it separated from the space ship in mid-December.

The European Space Agency and British government, which jointly commissioned an inquiry into what went wrong, said nobody was to blame for the risky mission's failure.

"No single event led to failure and no single individual made a bad decision," ESA Science Director David Southwood told a news conference called to unveil the inquiry's recommendations without divulging its findings.

"Beagle 2 was a wonderful thing. It captured the public's imagination," he said. "Nobody has gone to Mars the first time successfully."

But the decision not to publish the inquiry's report is likely to add to a public perception the mission was botched by scientists given too little time, too little money and too little oversight from space agency engineers.

Southwood acknowledged that he had tried to kill the Beagle program when he took over as science director at ESA in 2001. He said he was persuaded to let it go ahead after some management changes, but always saw it as a risky venture.

The lander was built by an outside team of scientists from universities, rather than treated as an integral part of the space agency's Mars Express mission.

In its recommendations made public Monday, the inquiry said "any future complex instrument or lander must be built under the same management process as the mission spacecraft."