Beagle 2 lander failure investigation formally begins

Posted: February 11, 2004

Launched on a shoestring budget, its size tightly confined, the British Beagle 2 lander headed to Mars for a highly-ambitious mission to look for evidence of life. A Christmas Day touchdown on the Red Planet was planned, but the craft never phoned home and subsequent weeks of searching turned up only silence.

On Wednesday, the UK Science Minister Lord Sainsbury and the European Space Agency announced a joint investigation would be conducted into the failure the Beagle 2 lander. The Beagle 2 Management Board met in London last Friday and declared the spacecraft was lost.

"I believe such an inquiry will be very useful. The reasons identified by the Inquiry Board will allow the experience gained from Beagle 2 to be used for the benefit of future European planetary exploration missions," said Lord Sainsbury of the Department of Trade and Industry.

"ESA is a partnership of its Member States and sharing the lessons learnt from good and bad experiences is fundamental in cooperation," added ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain.

The space agency's inspector general, Rene Bonnefoy, will chair the investigation board. The UK deputy chairman will be David Link, a former director of science and radar observation at Matra Marconi Space, now EADS-UK.

Officials said the board is being set up under normal ESA procedures by the inspector general. Because the inquiry is into a British-built lander, it will report to Lord Sainsbury as well as to the director general of ESA.

Members being named to the board will have no direct involvement in the Beagle 2 mission, ESA said. The group is expected to begin work shortly and report by the end of March.

ESA's Mars Express orbiter carried Beagle 2 during launch and the multi-month cruise across space. Just days before arriving at Mars, Beagle was deployed to make its descent.

Investigators will attempt to determine what caused Beagle's failure. The board's terms are as follows:

1. Technical Issues

  • Assess the available data/documentation pertaining to the in-orbit operations, environment and performance characterization, and to the on-ground tests and analyses during development;

  • Identify possible issues and shortcomings in the above and in the approach adopted, which might have contributed to the loss of the mission.

2. Programmatics

  • Analyze the programmatic environment (i.e. decision-making processes, level of funding and resources, management and responsibilities, interactions between the various entities) throughout the development phase;

  • Identify possible issues and shortcomings, which might have contributed to the loss of the mission.

In addition, Beagle engineers and officials are conducting their own investigation.

"The project team has begun an in-house investigation into all the technical aspects of Beagle 2 to establish those areas of greatest risk and what might be done to alleviate them in a future mission," Beagle officials announced in a statement.

"It will make all the information available to the official ESA/UK government inquiry announced by Lord Sainsbury."

Background from ESA
The Beagle 2 project to make a lander element of the ESA Mars Express mission was headed by the Open University, providing the science lead, and EADS-Astrium, the prime contractor responsible for the main design, development and management of the lander.

Beagle 2 was designed to look for signs of life on Mars. It was to parachute down to the surface of the planet and collect soil samples, which would have been analyzed for signs of past and present biological activity. The lander was also packed with a suite of instruments to take pictures, acquire geological information and study the weather, including temperature, pressure and wind.

The Beagle 2 lander was funded through a partnership arrangement involving the Open University, EADS-Astrium, the DTI, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the Office of Science and Technology and ESA. Funding also came from the National Space Science Centre and the Wellcome Foundation. UK principal investigators for Beagle 2 came from the Open University (gas analysis package), Leicester University (environmental sensors and x-ray spectrometer) and Mullard Space Science Laboratory (imaging systems).

The ESA Mars Express spacecraft, the mother ship, successfully entered orbit around Mars on Christmas Day and, following a series of orbital maneuvers, has been performing excellently as it starts its two-year global survey of the planet. Among first results announced on January 23 were unprecedented 3-D high-resolution images of the surface and the detection of water ice on the South Pole.