Beagle fell victim to Martian heatwave, says scientist

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The Independent Online

Britain's ill-fated Beagle 2 space probe probably fell victim to the wrong kind of weather - a Martian heatwave - the mission's chief scientist said yesterday.

Britain's ill-fated Beagle 2 space probe probably fell victim to the wrong kind of weather - a Martian heatwave - the mission's chief scientist said yesterday. Professor Colin Pillinger was speaking as the European Space Agency (ESA) and the British Government released 19 recommendations - but not the full report - into the failure of the £50m project, which was due to land on Mars on Christmas Day to search for signs of life.

The report is being kept confidential, so much so that even Professor Pillinger is not allowed to read it in full, though civil servants said he will receive a "full debrief" on the content relating to the mission itself.

Professor Pillinger said he believed that turbulent dust storms preceding the arrival of Beagle 2 at its launch site had heated the Martian atmosphere, making it less dense. That would cause the lander to fall faster and further towards the surface.

"It was thinner than anticipated," said Professor Pillinger, of the Open University. "If the atmosphere is thinner, everything is triggered later."

As a result, Beagle 2's parachutes and the airbags that were supposed to cushion its fall would have been deployed too late or not at all, and it would crash on the surface. However, investigators have never been able to pinpoint the definitive cause of the disappearance.

The existence of the report, and its non-disclosure for reasons of "commercial confidence", stirred up a fresh round of controversy between civil servants and Professor Pillinger's team, who launched Beagle 2 from the ESA Mars Express spacecraft after hitching a lift on the mission during planning in 1997.

Professor Pillinger said: "I'm annoyed that this report has taken so long to come out, and that it was leaked in a way that would let journalists think it contained criticism of people." The limited circulation of the report suggests only a handful of people would have been able to leak any of its contents before it was published yesterday.

The report investigated the processes around Beagle's development and deployment. But only four copies have been produced. David Leadbeater, deputy director-general of the British National Space Centre, and one of those who has had sight of the full report, said that the secrecy was partly because two companies involved in the project are suing each other, which made the report commercially confidential.

"There was a collective failure to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of this exercise," Mr Leadbeater said. But he insisted the report does not apportion blame. "It does not say anywhere that a person or team should or should not have done this or that. It is more concerned with processes."

But the report's recommendations contain coded criticisms of the designs chosen by the Beagle 2 team, especially its parachutes. By recommending different designs for future landers, and better co-ordination over the use of airbag technology with the United States and Russia, it suggests that the Beagle 2 team failed to make allowances for variations in conditions.

But Professor Pillinger rebuffed those criticisms. "The failure wasn't because the lander hit the parachute as those recommendations suggest," he said. "It could have been a two-pence resistor failing. We just won't know.

"There were things we could have done better, but some things were imposed on us."