Severe organisational failures lie behind the loss of Beagle 2, the UK-lead space probe to Mars which vanished shortly before it landed on the Red Planet late last year, an official inquiry reported Monday.
Investigators were not able to place the blame on a single failure or shortcoming, an official told a press conference in London.
However such were the worries about the mission ahead of its launch that one leading member of the European Space Agency (ESA) said that he had wondered whether it might have been better cancelled.
Meanwhile the British scientist who masterminded the tiny probe, built with the goal of searching for signs of life on Mars, said that a Martian dust storm was the most likely reason behind its presumed destruction.
Professor Colin Pillinger told the press conference that these unusual atmospheric conditions meant Beagle's landing equipment failed to operate as planned.
The dust storms heated the Martian atmosphere, making it thinner, Pillinger explained.
"It was thinner than anticipated. If the atmosphere is thinner, everything is triggered later," he said, meaning that the parachutes and airbags meant to break Beagle's fall would have been deployed too late or not at all.
The miniature laboratory had been due to land on Mars on December 25 last year before flipping open like a pocket watch and beginning its work, but it disappeared without trace.
In contrast, a pair of US probes sent to Mars around the same time landed perfectly and have been sending back streams of data ever since.
Professor David Southwood, director of space science at ESA, said the inquiry had found that "no single event led to failure and no single individual made a bad decision".
"However, failure was institutional. We were working in a system which wasn't right, where the organisational structures weren't right and people didn't have the right level of empowerment, authority or resource," he told the press conference.
When he started his job in the summer if 2001, he examined the Beagle 2 project and initially decided that it should not take place at all.
"By the autumn I had accepted that Beagle was going to go," he said.
"Maybe I should never have accepted that. But frankly I would have had to have been a different person to me to take that final decision."
Although the inquiry's findings were released on Monday, the full report has been kept confidential, both to protect sensitive commercial interests and ensure no one was afraid to come forward with evidence.
One of the report's key recommendations was that future missions should see better integration between the orbiter craft and lander.
Beagle II was "added on" to the Mars Express Orbiter that carried it to Mars and treated as an instrument to be deployed rather than part of the whole spacecraft.
Full funding should also be committed at the start of a project, as against Pillinger's initial unsuccessful attempt to win commercial sponsorship for Beagle 2, the report said.
Beagle 2's budget is secret, but is unofficially estimated at around 30 to 50 million pounds (43-71 million euros, 54-89 million dollars), about a 10th of the budgeted cost of each of the two US rovers.
Despite the failure, Pillinger stressed that he had no regrets.
"We gave Beagle the very best shot we could within the constraints that were placed upon us," he said.
"We were right to have a go."
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An Interview With Colin Pillinger
Moffett Field (SPX) May 04, 2004
From 200 million miles away on Mars, the European Beagle 2 lander was intended to send back a faint 5-watt signal. To acquire that miniscule signal could be compared to picking up a cellphone call if broadcast from Mars to Earth. That phone call was intended to as a Christmas greeting to scientists listening in after Beagle 2's expected December 25th touchdown.
Beagle 2: A Fortunate Failure
Honolulu - Jan 13, 2004
Everyone interested in Mars exploration should now take a few minutes off from looking at those fine photos of Gusev Lava Flow sent back by the Spirit rover. It is time to fall on our knees, face toward Memphis and give thanks to Elvis that the British Mars lander Beagle 2 has failed. I can't think of any possible event more potentially disastrous for the future of unmanned planetary exploration than the success of this particular mission writes Jeffrey F. Bell.
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