Man with a (second) mission

Can it be true that Beagle 2 is now in pieces, strewn across the arid surface of Mars and slowly disappearing beneath the planet’s endlessly shifting sands? All the signs are that this inspirational project has come to a rude and undeserved end. The latest attempt to raise Beagle via the Mars Express orbiter failed on Wednesday.

Despite assertions that the search will continue well into February, the team leaders have admitted that ever since the probe failed to respond on Christmas Day, the chances of contact were not good. NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter was to act as the first relay between Beagle and Earth, an element of the mission which, like many others, could not be properly tested before Beagle was launched.

There were questions asked behind the scenes about the serviceability of the communications technology onboard Odyssey. But when, a week later, it successfully made contact with NASA’s Spirit rover, the Beagle team realised that the problem must be in their court.

Then, on Wednesday, the news came in from the German control centre that Beagle’s mothership, Mars Express, had failed to make contact. Pillinger bowed his head and bit gently at his lip. After Odyssey, Mars Express represented the best chance of keeping the mission going.

Towards the end of Wednesday’s press conference, Pillinger announced that a replica Beagle craft would make a second voyage to Mars, but this time it could be equipped with the tracking technology used by NASA, allowing contact to be made more easily. This would make the probe heavier, but Pillinger said the mission would cost less because most of the development work was completed. The next Beagle mission would launch in 2007, he said, and could include two or more landers, but it would not be attached to an orbiter mothership. More details about that project are likely to be revealed in March.

Some might question the wisdom of such a plan, given what appears to be the total failure of this first mission. But they would be wrong to condemn it. The fact that Pillinger got anything onto the surface of Mars at all means that he came within a whisker of success. Making contact with the probe would have been the last in a long list of hurdles cleared. It would have been glorious – a glory with that special lustre that comes from beating the Americans at their own game on a fraction of the budget. It would have been the greatest of triumphs, a typically English seat-of-the-pants affair, qualifying Pillinger’s boys for a parade through central London and New Year’s Honours all round. As it is, the American success over Beagle has fuelled a round of grim cliches about failure and the British condition – and that, for most people, has been the end of that.

This misses the point to the same degree as a Mars probe landing on the Moon instead. As Dr David Whitehouse said on the BBC: ‘Never has a spacecraft been built so quickly, on so little money, and been sent on such a long journey fraught with so many dangers.’ Forced to compromise on most areas of the design, there was not the room or the budget to engineer the probe sufficiently to reduce the odds of failure. The mission hung by a thread at almost every turn, from launch to landing. The smallest thing had the potential to scupper it at each stage.

We do not know what has gone wrong, but Pillinger and his team has done well. With a bit of luck and lessons learned, he will be successful next time. The first Beagle 2 mission has been a triumph of sorts; for co-operation, determination, flair and ingenuity. We hope that these attributes will be brought to bear next time.