Lack of cash killed Beagle 2

Earlier funding required, conclude MPs

If there had been as many people taking care of the Beagle 2 project as there have been reports into why the lander got lost, we'd have reams of data on the composition of the Martian soil flooding back from a perfectly functioning vehicle, right now.

The latest report is from the House of Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology. It concludes, among other things, that the project was stymied by a lack of funding at an early enough stage in the development process. It says that while the government was "admirably enthusiastic" about the project, is was "unable to respond to its relatively sudden emergence" with guaranteed sponsorship. As a consequence, the scientists had to spend time fundraising, rather than on designing and testing equipment.

These conclusions echo the findings of the Beagle 2 team's own investigation, published this August. Although they refused to blame a lack of funding for the mission's failure, Professor Colin Pillinger did acknowledge that it would have been useful to have had the money earlier in the process. He told reporters then: "Obviously more money means you can do more testing, but testing isn't everything, it still has to work on the day."

Another major stumbling block was that Beagle 2 was classified as an instrument, rather than a lander. At this stage, almost everyone agrees that this was a mistake. It was categorised as such mainly for budgetary reasons, and as a consequence neither ESA (European Space Agency) nor the UK government really became involved until problems with the project became apparent.

Despite all this, the select committee argued that the investment of £25m of taxpayers' money in the project was a good one, because it put the UK on a strong footing for involvement in future space programmes, such as Aurora, the European mission to Mars.

It applauded PPARC's (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) early decision to fund Aurora, but cautioned: "Long term participation will be expensive however...we have recommended that the Government does not leave it to PPARC alone to fund future UK involvement."

Beagle 2 hitched a ride to Mars on the ESA's Mars Express mission. It was designed to drill down into the surface of the red planet and search for evidence of life. However, the lander failed to make contact with the team on Earth once it had been ejected from Mars Express, and was declared lost soon afterwards. Subsequent investigations concluded that the lander had most likely crashed into Mars, its parachutes not sufficient to slow its descent in the thinner-than-expected atmosphere. ®

Related link

Select Committee report (pdf).

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