Back to the Royal Institution for another -- presumably the last -- Beagle post mortem. This one was a report put together by the Beagle team itself, edited by the mission manager, Mark Sims, who, frankly, looks a bit more drawn than I remember him from back in December and January. Not that that's much of a surprise.
The Pill came too, of course, but this is at least in principle Mark's show. He has two documents to present, a slim Lessons Learned (though when I say slim, that's because it's mostly just a list - there are 288 lessons there, which is quite a curriculum) and a final Mission Report that runs to 260 pages; as of today they’re available in pdf form here. They're a sort of brain dump by the spacecraft team -- everyone's thoughts on what might have gone wrong and how it might have been avoided. An independent report would be nicer, obviously -- but at least we can read this one.
Mark went through the highlights quickly. To summarise but not traduce: something might conceivably have happened when the spacecraft got shaken during launch, or when ice crusted on or near it in the cruise phase, but the team thinks that's very unlikely. Then, during entry, descent and landing, pretty much anything could have gone wrong. Sims said his personal nightmare was that something screwed up the antenna deployment -- that the spacecraft was sitting there all ready to do its stuff for days and days and just couldn't communicate.
The suggestion that abnormal atmospheric conditions -- specifically, low densities around 20km up -- may have been a problem came up again. Mark was open in saying that in some ways the atmospheric explanation might be seen as welcome; it gets the team a little off the hook, though not all the way off, as you could definitely say their design shouldn't have been so vulnerable to slight differences between the atmosphere they got and the one they expected. Anyway, the evidence for a thinner-than-modelled atmosphere is sparse, depending on some error rich data from Mars Express's Spicam instrument and slight anomalies in the MER landing timing which NASA people are quoted as downplaying a bit. (I was later given the impression that there may be more evidence in MER descent data that hasn't been made entirely public yet; we’ll see.) All told, I thought Sims did a pretty good job of opening the possibility up but not over-playing it.
In general, though, there was an odd tension to the whole event. On one side there was the admission that lots of things could have gone wrong, and that one of them surely did, even if none of the failure modes stands out, even in retrospect, as particularly likely. On the other side there was a tendency towards a the-operation-was-a-success-but-the-patient-died sort of attitude. That still doesn't really wash. But it's good to have a long list of lessons -- whatver happens next, they should be useful to someone, somewhere, sometime. (I particularly liked the one that says don't turn off the heating when the engineers are working all night...)
Scanning the documents later, a few things jump out at me, but that's not to say they're really significant. One is that the team isn't absolutely sure the spacecraft left Mars Express pointed in the right direction, though there’s no particularly good evidence that it didn’t. Another is the static discharge while the system was still on the ground that led to some components being replaced and others not. Another is that after redesigning the parachute, the team didn't do a full reanalysis of the danger that the new parachute might be more liable to snag the spacecraft or the airbags after landing than the old parachute had been. Another is that there were problems with overseeing the work that Martin Baker, an American firm, did on the EDL systems and the gasbags; US ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) considerations apparently got in the way. (Martin Baker left the project in 2001, after which Astrium took over their part of the deal.)
As I say, these things piqued my fancy, but they're not necessarily of any great import. The reports don't particularly play them up or down, and I have no reason to second guess them. The truth is that without EDL telemetry we were never likely to have a firm answer. (The Mars Polar Lander inquest was more conclusive, but that could easily be because there was a clearer smoking gun, rather than that the inquest process was more incisive.) One interesting detail is that work was done at one point on an EDL telemetry system, but it was abandoned when ESA said that there was no orbital or earthly asset that could be made ready to receive its signals. Was that really the case, I wonder. Or was it just felt that altering the Mars Express trajectory so that the orbital insertion burn came a bit later and the spacecraft was thus free to monitor Beagle’s descent was not worth the risk. (I don’t know enough astrodynamics to say whether such an alteration was really possible; insight welcome.)
That brings up one of the lessons learned which is mostly between the lines of the reports; that ESA’s ambivalence was bad for the project. The implication is that ESA always sort of expected Beagle 2 to drop out, so it never did more than tolerate its presence. One gem in the reports is that ESA didn’t actually send representatives to one or two of the critical design reviews. Yet at the same time, ESA didn’t actually cancel Beagle either. Now whether a more hands-on ESA would have resulted in better engineering is hard to say; but a firmer commitment might have led to better management and a more even cash flow.
It’s far from obvious that Colin would have welcomed a more intrusive interest, even if it was benign -- being the outsider, and an outsider quite clearly labelled as British, clearly suited some of the narratives he was spinning about the project, and quite possibly his own self-image. But it does seem to me that these reports make clearer than ever the fact that ESA should either have cancelled the project or thrown a little more into its success. I know -- if they had, and something had still gone wrong, and as a result the orbiter had been lost too, then the calamity would have been far greater. Hard call either way. I’m just saying how it looked from the cheap seats today.
The press conference ended, predictably, with future plans. Mark talked of a possible 2009 follow on mission. Colin, typically, said it was worth pushing for 2007. He has half a point –- as he sort of said, a 2009 Beagle-based mission would look a bit puny compared to NASA’s MSL. But he has no funding, and while ESA may have a commitment to “fallen comrades”, as the phrase has it, it may be that Beagle looks more like a fallen fellow traveller -- especially when the ESA science budget is very tight.
Colin also said that he’d written to NASA about the possibility of flying a Beagle package as part of the 2009 mission. He painted a sweet picture of the MSL scurrying around picking up samples and bringing them back to little Beagle for consideration. However, it’s very hard to believe that Colin really believes this is plausible, and there’s no reason at all why any of the rest of us should, despite the fact that this, to judge by the mood of the media at the meeting, will be the idea that gets picked up in the papers. MSL is going to be packed with American instruments aiming at many of the Beagle objectives, and the chances that a large number of them will be turfed off to free up mass for an anglo-european instrument package that’s the brainchild of a man quite willing to indulge in some America-bashing when it suits his purposes seem to me negligible. As in nil. Maybe Colin’s an eternal optimist. Maybe he’s trying to pick a fight, and thinks being rejected or ignored by NASA will help his case elsewhere. Your guess is probably as good as mine.