Artist's impression of Schiaparelli, the ExoMars entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, as it approaches the Martian surface. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Artist’s impression of Schiaparelli, the ExoMars entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, as it approaches the Martian surface.
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Yes…“Mars is hard!” That’s particularly true when you slam into the planet at nearly 200 miles per hour.

Imagery from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) orbiting the Red Planet has spotted the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Schiaparelli lander.

Lost contact

ESA lost contract with the lander mid-way through its descent to the planet’s surface. Imagery suggests that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of 1.2 miles to 2.5 miles (2 to 4 kilometers), probably because the craft’s thrusters cut off early.

Credit: ESA

Credit: ESA

It “may have” exploded on contact with the surface since the fuel tanks would have been full, but ESA cautions that these are only preliminary interpretations.

An ESA press release stated: “Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometers, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than [186 miles per hour] 300 kilometers per hour…It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full.  These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis.”

Upcoming: high-resolution imagery

The MRO image was taken by the orbiter’s low-resolution CTX camera that has been orbiting Mars since 2006. MRO will make another pass over the site this coming week and use its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera to image the area again.

Signs of Schiaparelli test lander seen from Mars orbit. This comparison of before-and-after images shows two spots that likely appeared in connection with the October 19, 2016, Mars arrival of the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli test lander. The images are from the Context Camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Signs of Schiaparelli test lander seen from Mars orbit. This comparison of before-and-after images shows two spots that likely appeared in connection with the October 19, 2016, Mars arrival of the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli test lander. The images are from the Context Camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The CTX imagery has a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface compared to an image taken in May. ESA concluded that one feature is Schiaparelli’s 12-meter diameter parachute and the other is from the lander’s impact with the surface.

Fuzzy dark patch

The “fuzzy dark patch” where it impacted the surface is about 1 kilometer away from the parachute. The impact area is 3.3 miles (5.4 kilometers) west of its intended landing point and within the planned landing ellipse.

Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society calculated that Schiaparelli impacted some 34 miles (54 kilometers) away from the NASA Opportunity rover’s current location on the edge of Endeavour crater.

ExoMars program

Schiaparelli is part of ESA’s ExoMars program, a cooperative initiative with Russia. There are four spacecraft in the program:  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander, launched together earlier this year, and a Russian lander and European rover that will be launched in 2020 (delayed from 2018).

Schiaparelli’s purpose was to test entry, descent, and landing (EDL) technologies in preparation for the 2020 mission.

Technology testing

At a press conference following the lander mishap, ESA Director General Jan Woerner said he was happy with the mission even if Schiaparelli did not make a survivable landing since its purpose was to test these technologies. It did enter the Mars atmosphere correctly, descend, jettison its heat shield and deploy its parachute.

Something happened right at the time the parachute should have jettisoned. What occurred remains a mystery, but ExoMars Project Manager Don McCoy expressed confidence that after fully analyzing data transmitted from Schiaparelli to TGO during the descent “we will have no doubt” about what transpired.

High-resolution imagery from NASA’s MRO will certainly help in the quest for answers.

On patrol - NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) can image the whereabouts and condition of ESA's Schiaparelli lander. Credit: NASA/JPL

On patrol – NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) can image the whereabouts and condition of ESA’s Schiaparelli lander.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Search for methane

Woerner is also enthusiastic about the mission because TGO is in its proper orbit, able to serve as a communications link with the 2020 lander/rover as well as to conduct its scientific mission to study trace gases, especially methane, in the Martian atmosphere that could provide information on whether life ever existed there.

Woerner is optimistic that the ministers of ESA’s member states will similarly see the mission as a success since more money is needed to complete the 2020 portion of the mission, on the order of 300 million Euros.

Track record

The United States is the only country to unequivocally make successful landings on Mars.

The Soviet Union sent four landers to Mars in the 1970s (Mars 2, Mars 3, Mars 6 and Mars 7).

Only Mars 3 transmitted a signal back to Earth after landing and it lasted less than 20 seconds.

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Britain’s Beagle 2 traveled to Mars along with ESA’s Mars Express orbiter in 2003. Contact was lost before it entered the Martian atmosphere. MRO also located that spacecraft on the surface just last year. It was only partially deployed and unable to communicate back to Earth.

Seven successes

NASA has sent eight landers to Mars, seven successfully: Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Phoenix lander, and the Curiosity rover.

History-making Viking Mars landers touched down on the Red Planet in 1976 - four decades ago this year. Credit: NASA

History-making Viking Mars landers touched down on the Red Planet in 1976 – four decades ago this year.
Credit: NASA

 

One U.S. spacecraft, the Mars Polar Lander, failed probably because of a similar problem as Schiaparelli — early termination of the retrorockets.

 

Note: This story is based on a report from SpacePolicyOnline.com – used by permission. The original article can be found here at:

http://www.spacepolicyonline.com/news/found-one-european-mars-lander-no-longer-intact

 

 

 

 

 

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