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Scientist criticises botched Beagle mission

An artist's impression of Beagle 2 on the Martian surface. ESA

A member of the Swiss team involved in the Beagle 2 Mars mission says inadequate testing and a lack of funding may have contributed to its apparent failure.

This content was published on January 7, 2004 - 18:41

Nothing has been heard from Beagle - which was carrying Swiss instruments - since it attempted to land on the planet on Christmas Day.

The European Space Agency (ESA) made a further attempt on Wednesday to locate the tiny lander, but without success.

Scientists were hoping that its mothership, Mars Express, would make contact with Beagle 2 when it flew over its presumed landing site.

Further attempts will be made to contact Beagle over the next week, but experts admit the chances of finding the vessel are slim.

“There’s probably only a five per cent chance of finding Beagle,” said Nicolas Thomas, a University of Bern professor and member of the Beagle team.

"This is not the end of the story and we have many more shots to play. But I have to say, this is a setback,” David Southwood, head of science at the ESA, told a press conference in Darmstadt, Germany.

Baffled

Experts are baffled about what exactly happened to Beagle. Thomas says it is possible that the lander didn’t survive entry through the thin Martian atmosphere or that an airbag malfunctioned on landing.

He added that even if the craft had landed successfully, it might not have been able to send a signal. Another theory is that Beagle fell into a crater.

The news comes as a blow for the Beagle team, especially as the Spirit rover developed by the United States space agency, Nasa, has been beaming back pictures of Mars.

A second Nasa rover is expected to land on the planet at the end of the month.

Thomas told swissinfo that he regretted not being able to carry out tests on the planet, using the cameras and high-powered microscope developed by the University of Bern and a Neuchâtel-based company, Space-X.

“On the one hand, I’m very happy for the Nasa team. They put a huge amount of work into those rovers. But when I see them jumping up and down, I wish that was me,” he said.

Money problems

Thomas said the Europeans had done well to get Beagle launched, but he thought a lack of money might have played a part in the mission’s failure.

“For [Nasa’s] Mars exploration rovers, the project cost was $1.1 billion (€870 million). With Beagle 2, we estimated the price for the lander and the experiments at somewhere between €80-100 million, so Beagle was about a tenth of the price,” he explained.

Thomas said one of the main costs associated with spacecraft development was manpower. And if there wasn’t enough money to run tests properly then there was always a risk of failure.

“I know that Beagle was very tight on manpower and it might just be that it wasn’t tested adequately,” said Thomas.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold

Key facts

Mars Express, carrying the Beagle 2 lander, was launched in June from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
Mars Express is Europe’s first spacecraft to the Red Planet.
It was built by a European team of industrial companies.
The mission has cost €300 million (SFr465 million).
Beagle is named after a ship which British naturalist, Charles Darwin, took to gather data that led to his groundbreaking evolution theory.

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