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Schiaparelli Mars Lander Likely Crashed on Descent

The European Space Agency lost contact with the Schiaparelli probe after it jettisoned its heat shield and deployed its parachute

(ESA/ATG Media Lab)
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The European Space Agency confirmed this morning that its Schiaparelli lander likely did not survive its six-minute descent through the Martian atmosphere yesterday and is probably lost. The probe is part of the ESA’s ExoMars Mission and was designed to test landing technology for future missions to the Red Planet.

Signals from Schiaparelli communicated through the Trace Gas Orbiter, the other half of the 2016 ExoMars Mission, confirm that its entry into Mar's atmosphere and initial descent went according to plan. But something went wrong about 50 seconds before touchdown after the 1,323-lb craft had ejected its heat shield and deployed its parachutes. Mission scientists are not sure exactly what occurred, but are examining data from the descent. The fault may lie in the lander's parachute being ejected too early and its thrusters turning off too soon, reports Jonathan Amos from the BBC. The fact that the ESA has some data from the lander, however, is helpful to determining the true cause.

“Schiaparelli’s primary role was to test European landing technologies. Recording the data during the descent was part of that, and it is important we can learn what happened, in order to prepare for the future,” says Jan Wörner, ESA Director General.

“In terms of the Schiaparelli test module, we have data coming back that allow us to fully understand the steps that did occur, and why the soft landing did not occur,” says David Parker, ESA Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration.

Monica Grady, professor of planetary and space sciences at the Open University, writes over at The Conversation that the loss will make the next stage of ExoMars more difficult. In 2020, the ESA will attempt to land a rover on Mars, which will be able to drill more than six feet deep into the Martian crust in search of life. Without a successful landing under their belt, the project seems more risky.

This is not the first time the ESA has lost a vessel sent on a mission to Mars. In 2003, the Beagle 2, part of the ESA’s Mars Express mission, lost contact while descending to the surface of Red Planet. It was not until 2015 when NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found the craft, that scientists found out that it had landed successfully but could not deploy its solar panels, sitting powerless on the Martian surface for a dozen years.

Other Mars missions have met similarly grim fates. Over a 60-year span, for instance, the USSR and later Russia launched over a dozen failed attempts to put an orbiter around Mars or reach the surface of the planet or its moon, Phobos. In 1971, its Mars 2 lander crashed on the planet’s surface and its Mars 3 lander transmitted a few seconds of data before conking out. Most recently in 2011, the Phobos-Grunt Mission crashed after failing to leave earth’s orbit, destroying China’s first Mars orbiter Yinghuo-1, which the Russian craft was carrying.

NASA’s track record has not been perfect either. There have been high-profile successful missions like the Mariner and Viking programs in the 1960s and '70s, which provided some of the first great data on Mars as well as the Pathfinder and Opportunity and Spirit rover missions in the 2000s. But in the late 1990s, the agency lost the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter over a human programming error confusing metric and imperial units and soon after two Deep Space-2 probes disappeared and the Mars Polar Lander crashed into the surface of the planet in a landing malfunction similar to Schiaparelli’s.

Failures like this are inevitable in the complicated devices launched into the great beyond. But despite the disappearance of the Schiaparelli lander, its mothership is now successfully orbiting the Red Planet, beaming back data to the ESA. And with every failure comes new knowledge that researchers can use to improve their next mission through the stars.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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