On December 19 last year, Beagle 2, a small British-built lander, ejected from its mothership, the European Space Agency's Mars Express, and started
on its final trajectory to Isidis Planitia on the Red Planet. The U.K.'s first mission to another planet was to land on Christmas morning, pop open
like a pocket watch, and begin a search for signs of life, past or present. Mars Express snapped several images of the tiny lander as it departed.
Those images are the last anyone has seen or heard of it. Beagle 2 disappeared without a trace, to date, to be found.
Today, in the just-released Beagle2Mars Mission Report, the mission operations team analyzes a thorough list of possible failure mechanisms that could
have sealed the fate of the British lander -- including electronic glitches, damage to the heat shield, a broken communications antenna, and collision
with an unforeseen object, but suggests that Mars Express targeted Beagle 2 at the correct velocity and spin rate, and that it is "most likely" that
it failed during entry, descent, and landing, as a result of atmospheric conditions or the airbags breaking on impact or the first bounce.
Since there is no radio telemetry or visual data of Beagle 2 post ejection from Mars Express, there is no way to unequivocally identify the cause of
failure, and the report ultimately concludes: "No definitive cause could be identified due to the paucity of data."
Beagle2Mars is based on an internal investigation of the mission and is published in two parts: 1) the Mission Report chronicles and reviews the
effort, noting its achievements, detailing potential causes of failure, and describing the search strategy to try and find the lander; 2) Lessons
Learned and Management and Programmatics, reviews how the project was managed, the constraints it confronted, as well as documents lessons learned in
every phase of the mission.
This report comes three months after ESA and the British government completed their investigation. Although those two entities jointly issued a set of
recommendations, the report of that investigation was sealed to all except those with a need to know.
With what there is to compare, both reports are unified in citing the need for "improved characterizations of the Martian atmosphere," as
"critical" to the success or failure of future missions. Both reports also agree that next time the lander must be viewed and treated as an integral
part of the mission and not as an instrument as Beagle 2 was, that decisions to be made on projects promptly to give the mission time to retire the
risks, and that changes in the way such a project is managed need to be made.
The team "strongly" recommends in the report "that any future combined orbiter and lander mission is managed and defined as a cohesive programme,
with no part given less than equal priority."
The Beagle 2 project was "internally managed to high professional standards under severe interface, schedule and financing constraints," the team
writes. "Some critical decisions were forced upon the program due to lack of time to undertake technically preferred tests, following lack of
sufficient early funding, however all systems were tested." From the time the project began in early 1999 to June 2001, "only 19% of the work was
completed" because of these reasons, "leaving just 20 months to delivery to Mars Express. The operations and ground system were developed
successfully under similar schedule and funding pressure." That noted, they go on to point out that Beagle 2 "was delivered on time to the launch
site" and was carried aloft by Mars Express and operated successfully throughout the cruise phase to Mars."
Colin Pillinger -- the father and driving force behind Beagle 2 -- has been saying since last spring that he thought the 'puppy,' as he had
affectionately called his charge, probably crashed into the planet, because the atmosphere was impacted by a regional dust storm and was,
consequently, less dense than anticipated. The data that is the basis of that belief comes from an instrument onboard Mars Express that indicated
evidence of unusually low atmospheric density, according to the report, and from NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, both of
which encountered atmospheric density surprisingly lower than models described. If Beagle 2 did encounter less resistance, its parachutes and airbags
that were to cushion its fall would have been deployed too late or not at all.
Click to enlarge
One of the last images of Beagle 2 taken by Mars Express.
In its investigation, the team found that a few glitches notwithstanding Beagle 2's systems operated nominally up to and through the process of
ejection from Mars Express on December 19. They did discover and analyze a piece of debris of unknown size -- estimating it to be anywhere from ~2-3
millimeters to between 20 mm X 20 mm and 60 mm X 60 mm -- that appears in the images acquired by Mars Express to have followed Beagle 2 as it left the
mothership. While the potential for that debris to have damaged and interfered with the Beagle's safe arrival cannot be ruled out, the team views the
likelihood for that as "very low."
The internal investigation found no significant reason to doubt the operation of the main parachute, counter to one early hypothesis. Although the
mission had failure issues with its first parachute design, the system that replaced it "met all of its specified requirements," according to the
After considering whether Beagle 2 might have landed in one of two large craters discovered within the predicted landing area, which would have
hindered or damaged the lander's ability to signal, the team concludes in the report that the probability of the probe dropping into one of those
was, like the debris and main parachute failure theories, "very low."
In chronicling the efforts to find Beagle 2, the team assessed a tiny speck on an image from Michael Malin's Mars Orbital Camera (MOC) onboard Mars
Global Surveyor (MGS) as a possible candidate for the little lander. Malin has been imaging the landing sites of rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and
agreed last January to join the search for the little British lander.That possibility turned out to be a small crater, and so the mystery of what
happened to Beagle is likely to remain for awhile, if not forever. [If Beagle 2 did make it to the surface intact, it is possible that Mars
Reconaissance Orbiter (MRO), which is scheduled to launch in 2009 and offers a better chance of getting higher resolution images of the landing area,
may pinpoint its location.]
It is a universal truth in the realm of space exploration that landing on Mars is hard. One need only remember that the United States and former
Soviet Union suffered a number of failures before actually touching down on Mars, and that, historically, an average of two out of every three
missions to Mars have ended in failure.
Although Beagle 2 did not arrive safely, the team opines in the report that it should be acknowledged for advancing planetary lander technology in
Europe, and the unprecedented accomplishments it did achieve, not the least of which is getting Europe turned on to exploring other planets. Indeed,
Beagle 2 did capture the hearts of the United Kingdom and space enthusiasts around the world. The impact, the team contends, resounds today. "A
Rubicon has been crossed," it writes in the report.
Meanwhile, Pillinger revealed at a press conference in London this morning that he is "looking at the future," and has written to NASA asking
whether room can be found for a successor to Beagle on the much larger rover mission, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), according to the Mail and
Guardian. Slated to launch in 2009, MSL is an all-extraterrestrial terrain, long-range, long-duration robot rover that will explore the Red Planet for
years to assess whether it could be a habitat for life -- past or present -- and to help verify if human explorers could exist there in the future. He
has not yet received a reply.
Beagle 2 was a partnership between the Open University, where Pillinger is head of Planetary and Space Sciences, the University of Leicester, and EADS
Astrium (U.K.), with other funding coming from ESA, the U.K.'s Office of Science and Technology of the Department of Trade and Industry, the Particle
Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the Wellcome Trust, the British National Space Center and the Millennium Commission. The report can be
read in full at the University of Leicester.
Full article can be read here:
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