The day the Beagle died

An official enquiry into the failure of the Beagle 2 Mars lander has found that there were programmatic and organisational reasons that led to a significantly higher risk of failure than otherwise might have been the case.

An official enquiry into the failure of the Beagle 2 Mars lander has found that ‘there were programmatic and organisational reasons that led to a significantly higher risk of failure than otherwise might have been the case.’

The full report into the disappearance of the Beagle 2, commissioned jointly by Lord Sainsbury and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain, will remain confidential, but a summary has been published that implies that those involved in the mission may have been so excited by the prospect of Beagle 2 that they overlooked procedures to identify and diminish potential risks.

Many of the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations relate to resources. ‘Future lander missions should be under the responsibility of an Agency with appropriate capability and resources to manage it,’ it recommends. And future lander/orbiter missions should be managed as an integrated whole, which was not the case with ESA’s Mars Express and the UK’s Beagle 2.

Continuing with the financial theme, the report recommends that sponsoring agencies of nationally-funded contributions to ESA projects should ensure that required financing is committed at the outset, and that it meets the estimated cost of completion. It goes on to say that fixed price contracting should be avoided where possible, and both sponsor and contractor should be confident that the contractor has sufficient margins to manage any uncertainties and risks.

In terms of project management, the report recommends that formal arrangements are put in place between ‘cooperating entities’, ESA and national sponsors, and that system-level documentation is enforced. Such documentation would provide all partners with the project’s technical requirements and raise awareness of risks in each partner’s area of responsibility, it says.

There are a few technical recommendations, some of them relating to thorough testing prior to take-off, and some of them relating to specific components of the lander, such as the back cover and front shield.

Unsure whether Beagle 2’s air bag and parachute technology were to blame for the lander’s disappearance, the report also calls for adequate ‘competencies’ in these technologies, and states that European planetary missions must therefore make the best use of existing expertise in the US and Russia.

No single technical failure was, however, found to be clearly responsible for the mission’s failure.

Sources: Cordis, ESA