Cheap and rushed: the verdict on Beagle 2

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The Independent Online

An official inquiry into the failure of the Beagle 2 space mission to Mars at Christmas will condemn the British-led project as mismanaged.

The findings of a formal commission of inquiry set up to investigate the failed mission - which are being released in London tomorrow - are also expected to conclude that the project was rushed and done too cheaply.

The European Space Agency (ESA) will admit that the inquiry has "made it clear that there were programmatic and organisational reasons that significantly increased the risk of Beagle 2 failure."

Their conclusions will be a further blow for the team of British scientists and engineers led by Professor Colin Pillinger that designed Beagle 2 - a small circular lander which weighed just 60kgs and cost roughly £40m.

As the first ever British-led voyage to another planet, the lander's mission to Mars was seen as a breakthrough for British invention and creativity. Designed to find the first definitive evidence of life on Mars, its digital "signature tune" was written by the pop group Blur, and an array of coloured dots used to calibrate its instruments were designed by the artist Damien Hirst.

But the craft disappeared on Christmas Day, when it was due to land on Mars and send its first signals back to Earth. Desperate attempts were made to contact the lander but by late January, the joint Open University and University of Leicester team admitted that Beagle 2 had been lost. They had hoped that the mission would prove to sceptical Whitehall civil servants and the space minister, Lord Sainsbury, who will take part in tomorrow's announcement, that the UK should take a far more prominent role in space exploration.

Now, however, ministers are expected to be even more critical of plans by Professor Pillinger to build an improved Beagle craft and land it on Mars in 2007. He and his supporters have already begun lobbying the ESA to launch another mission. The Beagle 2 has been seen by some critics as yet another British failure. However, the Beagle team are privately furious at the criticism, and insist that space voyages are always highly risky. One source said that two-thirds of Nasa's missions to Mars have failed, losing landers costing $1.3bn (£725m) in the 1990s.

One of the main inquiry findings is expected to be that the project was given too low a priority and status by the European Space Agency. Crucially, this meant that the agency left the project in the hands of a small team of academics rather than more experienced agency staff.

The Beagle 2 project was beset by problems from the start. It was only made part of the Mars Express voyage three years ago, and at a late stage the ESA said that the size of the lander had to be cut by nearly half. However, there will also be criticisms of its design. Another theory to explain its fate focuses on equipment failures on board.

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