Found: One European Mars Lander, No Longer Intact

Found: One European Mars Lander, No Longer Intact

Imagery from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars has located the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Schiaparelli lander.  ESA lost contact with the lander two days ago mid-way through its descent to the planet’s surface.  The image suggests that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of 2-4 kilometers, probably because the thrusters cut off early.  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.

The image was taken by the low-resolution CTX camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been orbiting Mars since 2006.  MRO will make another pass over the site next week and use its high-resolution HiRISE camera to image the area again. [UPDATE: ESA released the image on October 27.]

Today’s image 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.

Top:  mosaic of images of Schiaparelli landing area from MRO and NASA’s Mars Odyssey.
Bottom: MRO imagery of surface of Mars showing before (left) and after (right) images of location where ESA’s Schiaparelli lander impacted.
Caption credit:  condensed from Emily Lakdawalla’s Planetary Society blog.

An ESA press release stated: “Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. … 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.”

The “fuzzy dark patch” where it impacted the surface is about 1 kilometer away from the parachute. The impact area is 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 54 kilometers away from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s current location on the edge of Endeavour crater.

Schiaparelli is part of ESA’s ExoMars program, a cooperative program 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.  At a press conference yesterday, 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 happened remains a mystery, but ExoMars Project Manger Don McCoy expressed confidence yesterday that after fully analyzing data transmitted from Schiaparelli to TGO during the descent “we will have no doubt” about what transpired. The imagery from MRO will certainly help in the quest for answers.

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.   He 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.

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.  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.

NASA has sent eight landers to Mars, seven successfully:  Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and Curiosity.  One, Mars Polar Lander, failed, probably because of a similar problem as Schiaparelli — early termination of the retrorockets.


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