So, at a press conference in London this afternoon, Colin Pillinger declares Beagle 2 all but officially dead. The latest round of attempted communications turned up nothing, and there is no plausible scenario in which the spacecraft has not yet transmitted anything at a time when we've been listening but is still capable of transmitting something. There is a last chance involving a reboot procedure, but it's clear that almost no hope at all is held out for it. On February sixth, it appears, the decision to draw a line under the mission. But as Pillinger says, everyone involved is now "looking to the future" -- specifically, the possibility of reflying the Beagle payload in some way or other in 2007.
There will be an inquiry, or a review, under the auspices of ESA. No-one yet knows who will chair it or serve on it. Its biggest problem will be that Beagle was out of contact from the moment when it left Mars Express, and so ascertaining when whatever went wrong went wrong is going to be hard. (The flight team is currently reanalysing all the data from before the separation to make sure that Beagle 2 was absolutely OK up until then). It's worth noting that Spirit and Opportunity both sent back telemetry all through their descent - and, as I understand it, the decision to arrange matters so that they could stay in constant touch actually increased the risk of failure, because it constrained their descent times to the mid afternoon, which is when the wind risks were highest. The need to know what had gone wrong if there was an accident trumped the need to minimise the risk of an accident.
If you're running a program that needs to learn from its mistakes, that's a good position to take (and one mandated by NASA, I think, after the telemetry-free loss of Mars Polar Lander). Colin insists that there was no way at all that the mass for a telemetry system that worked during entry, descent and landing could have been freed up. Unfortunately, that now makes it harder to turn the one-off Beagle 2 mission into an ongoing program - which is what the Pill is angling for. If no one can ever say for sure why Beagle 2 failed, the case for trying again is clearly weakened. Every time the team would say "we've thought of everything" the sceptical reply would be "you said that last time".
While we're at it, it might be quite a good idea at this point to provide an open accounting of who paid what for the project, a subject on which I for one am still rather hazy (for example, there was once talk of 10 million pounds in sponsorship: how much of this materialised, and did the British Government made up the difference?)
I have a certain ambivalence to all this. I would have loved it if Beagle had got safely to the surface and made its measurements. For a long time I had doubts that it was going to be able to, because it just seemed a priori unlikely that a team with no experience of running planetary missions would be able successfully to mount an ambitious one at a headlong rush on a tiny budget. They weren't deeply informed reservations - just doubts. They might have been erased - or confirmed - if I had done some reporting on the project, but Colin, while always being perfectly pleasant to me when we met, made it clear I was a journalist he didn't want too close. He declined to speak to me when I was assigned to write about Beagle 2 first by Science and then by the Telegraph magazine. That's his right, though it pissed me off at the time.
So with no professional reason to spend a lot of time thinking about Beagle 2 I came to the opinion that, since it was going to go ahead anyway, I should just sit back and hope for the best. Writing anti-Beagle stories - "Why is the government spending so much on something which has only a 50-50 chance of success?" etc - seemed unproductive and even a little unsporting. And the possibility of success was beguiling. Now that possibility is no more, it seems that at least some of those questions really should be asked before we start talking about reflying the mission in 2007, as Colin was today. For example, it would be nice to know more about the reasons why a Beagle follow on didnt even make the shortlist when it was proposed for the 2007 Mars Scout opportunity.
If you want really vituperative anti-Beaglism, though, I'm not your guy -- Jeffrey Bell is. Bell's the only person I know of who has actually argued in public that Beagle 2's demise is a good thing. Bell, an astronomer based in Hawaii, is outspoken in a way that can be quite brave -- I remember him standing up to Dan Goldin rather magnificently at a space science meeting in the early 1990s. There's some merit in some of the points in his argument that the Beagle's demise is something to be welcomed; other parts seem poorly founded, and one aside is foolishly malicious in a way that only ignorance of what the accusation actually means in context could come close to excusing.