Beagle dogged by neglect

The European Space Agency neglected Beagle 2 and failed to take the team seriously, engineers associated with the project have claimed. ESA mismanagement left the Beagle team to make decisions without sufficient guidance or control, while officials concentrated on the agency’s main project: Mars Express.

The criticisms echoed an ESA inquiry into the causes of the mission’s failure, the findings of which were published this week. These found that Beagle was treated as ‘an instrument’ rather than an integral part of Mars Express, and not supported by ESA for much of the development.

Dr. Mark Sims, Beagle mission manager, said that ESA focused on the success of its own project. ‘The biggest mistake was going as a hitchhiker on Mars Express, but it was the only option available. The Beagle team always recognised the probe as a complex innovative spacecraft, even though it did remain classified as an instrument. ESA had to make sure that Mars Express was a success with or without Beagle.’

The Beagle team came into direct conflict with ESA over the amount of room it was allocated on Mars Express, and appeals for more space were ignored, said Alistair Scott, spokesman for EADS Astrium, prime contractor of the Beagle technology.

In a statement in response to the inquiry Dr Mike Healy, UK director of Earth Observation, Navigation and Science at EADS Astrium, said: ‘The conclusion of the report is that we should have fought harder for a larger share of the mass and volume budgets on Mars Express.’

These mass constraints forced engineers to take shortcuts and higher risks, the Beagle team admitted. The inquiry found that mass-saving techniques may have contributed to Beagle’s failure. Stronger and more reliable internal connectors were eliminated from the wiring and replaced with soldering, for example. ESA may have failed to assert its experience to keep Beagle on a tight leash over its mass constraints.

The Beagle team, including mission leader Prof Colin Pillinger, has complained that it was also prevented from accessing much of Beagle’s technology, which only ESA could view in the early stages. Even prime contractor EADS Astrium was kept in the dark until ‘late in the day’, spokesman Scott said. The airbag system failed initial tests but US arms regulations meant details of the technology had to be kept from most of the team.

Beagle’s mission manager Sims said: ‘We had to rely completely on ESA and industry. I don’t think they got it wrong – but it meant you were constrained from taking part in any meaningful discussion because you couldn’t see the data.’

The inquiry found that in future technology should be developed within Europe to stop this breakdown in communication happening again. Pillinger has called for ESA to move quickly on the next Mars mission. ESA failed to inject cash into the early stages forcing engineers to rush, the inquiry found.

In the wake of the inquiry Dr. Tom Pike, senior lecturer in the department of electrical and electronic engineering at Imperial College and scientist on NASA’s Phoenix Lander, which is due to fly to Mars in 2007, said the recommendations are so basic that their inclusion means there were fundamental flaws with the way the project was run.

The details of the report remain secret, but 18 of the 19 findings criticised ESA. Pike said it was obvious there was not enough input from ESA managers. The Beagle team was allowed to take risks, he said. For example, Beagle had the highest ratio of scientific instruments to lander ever attempted.

‘A project scientist will feel in his bones that we should be sending instruments, not connectors to Mars. A systems engineer will feel in his bones that unless subsystems can be independently tested and verified they should not be flown. Nobody wants to lose the science, but there’s no gain in crashing superb instruments into another planet,’ he said.

The Beagle team plans to publish its own technical report on the failure within the next few weeks.

A spokesman for ESA said the organisation did all it could for the Beagle team – but the probe was a mere instrument on Mars Express. ‘An instrument is built under the responsibility of the team that proposes it. It’s a different approach. Instruments are taken on board as a payload,’ he said.

However, the agency spokesman accepted that complex machinery like Beagle should be under a ‘closer eye’ in future.