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Space agencies open inquiry into Beagle 2 loss

The European and British space agencies on Feb. 11 announced the creation of a board of inquiry to determine how future Mars missions might avoid the fate of the lost Beagle 2 lander, which has not been seen or heard from since its Dec. 19 separation from the Mars Express orbiter.

So little is known about what happened to Beagle 2 — it is presumed to have entered the Martian atmosphere and landed on Dec. 25 — that the inquiry will focus less on specific causes of the mission’s failure than a broad survey of Beagle 2’s financing, development and testing. The board of inquiry will be led by European Space Agency (ESA) Inspector General Rene Bonnefoy and is expected to report its findings by the end of March.

Despite numerous attempts to locate and contact Beagle 2 since late December by NASA’s Odyssey satellite, by ESA’s Mars Express and by ground-based antennas listening for a Beagle 2 signal, no signs of Beagle 2 life have been registered since its Dec. 19 separation from Mars Express.

Mission managers at Britain’s University of Leicester and Open University have said that they would have to accept the loss of the lander by mid-February if no signal were received.

Beagle 2 was designed to search for signs of past or present life on Mars. Its funding, totaling some 49 million euros ($61.25 million), was paid by ESA, the British government and Beagle 2 prime contractor Astrium Ltd. of Stevenage, England.

Despite its ambitious mission goals, the lander’s limited budget and weight limits as a piggyback passenger on Mars Express prohibited the inclusion of any backup systems. Any single failure during its descent to Mars, or during the deployment of its parachutes, air bags or solar arrays, could have caused the loss of Beagle 2.