The Schiaparelli probe, the ExoMars mission’s lander module, crashed on the surface of Mars as it was descending towards the regolith.
The probe lost contact with mission control just a minute before landing on the surface. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter already spotted the lander’s crashing site, showing its deployed parachute and the 40-yard-large place of impact.
ExoMars’ Schiaparelli probe entered the atmosphere last Wednesday at 14:42 GMT, but a few minutes later, mission control lost contact with the probe before touchdown. ExoMars’ Trace Gas Orbiter collected information just before the crash sequence, which is currently being analyzed by the mission’s crew.
The team suggests that, possibly, the probe did not activate its landing thrusters at the right time, which would have made the descent safe for the spacecraft. They may have failed to activate or were switched off preemptively, which caused the probe to descend in free fall from at least 2 kilometers away from the surface.
Estimated crash speed was calculated to be at least 300 kilometers per hour, equivalent to 186 miles 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,” the ESA reports on its website.
The flight crew is expected to reconstruct a precise chain of events that will reveal exactly what happened from the moment the Schiaparelli probe separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter until it crashed 5.4 kilometers west of its landing point.
Even if the Schiaparelli probe is gone, its Trace Gas Orbiter will collect significant scientific data as it orbits Mars until March, when it is planned to descend to a 400-kilometer altitude circular orbit around the planet.
— ESA (@esa) October 20, 2016
A bad precedent for sending a rover in 2020
The Schiaparelli probe was meant to pave the way for sending the ExoMars rover, collecting more information about landing on Mars. It appears that that’s exactly what occurred, as flight engineers can learn from both their successful and failed landings. The Trace Gas Orbiter, on the other hand, is intended to reveal more clues about the existence of life beneath the Martian surface, and to be a telecommunications relay for the rover, which is planned for launch in 2020.
One of the primary objectives of the ExoMars rover is to analyze the levels of methane present in the Martian atmosphere. Recently, scientists proposed that NASA’s Viking missions may have proved the existence of life on Mars, seeing that water has already been found on the planet 30 years later. Methane is an organic gas that can be linked to the existence of methane-based life forms.
But the Schiaparelli probe crash will be more of a setback than a success, seeing that the probe was intended to test the technology that would allow the ExoMars rover to perform a safe landing. Subsequent analyses about the crash will provide clues about what failed in the descent. The ExoMars mission has already suffered from delays due to budget cuts and difficulties in partnership, but it appears that there is still a long way to go before the ESA lands a spacecraft safely on the Martian surface.