One-half of Europe’s ambitious mission to Mars not only crashed into red dirt, but exploded upon impact and left a crater as wide as a car.
That’s the depressing conclusion of the European Space Agency (ESA), which lost contact with its Schiaparelli lander on October 19 during a planned 6-minute descent to Mars.
A new Martian satellite photo (below) shows Schiaparelli’s crash tossed up a huge streak of soot or dark soil while forming a crater nearly 8 feet wide.
The image was taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as it zoomed over the crash site on October 25, improving upon a previous set of images that highly suggested a new black splotch on Mars was, indeed, the lost spacecraft.
Dissecting a disaster
According to the last bits of data it beamed to Earth, the 8-foot-wide probe survived a harrowing atmospheric reentry at 13,000 mph, popped off its heat shield, and deployed a parachute.
But Paolo Ferri, the ESA’s head of mission operations, said on October 19 that something “unexpected” occurred when Schiaparelli was supposed to fire up its thrusters and gently plop onto the surface of Mars.
Engineers have worked day-in and day-out since they lost contact with the probe to deduce what happened.
Their best guess so far? A computer glitch made the robot think it was close to landing when, in fact, it was more than a mile high.
“The lander’s heat shield and parachute ejected ahead of time […] Then thrusters, designed to decelerate the craft for 30 seconds until it was meters off the ground, engaged for only around 3 seconds before they were commanded to switch off, because the lander’s computer thought it was on the ground,” writer Elizabeth Gabney reported for Nature.
The ESA’s initial description of the spacecraft’s failure on October 21 was rather subdued (our emphasis added):
“Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometers, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h,” the ESA wrote. “The relatively large size of the feature would then arise from disturbed surface material. It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full.”
In short: The probe fell out of the sky from more than a mile up, impacted the ground at more than 185 mph, and catastrophically blew up with its tanks full of fuel.
MRO helped confirm this conclusion by taking a photo of Schiaparelli’s suspected landing site a day after it was supposed to arrive:
The animation alternates between two views of the site: one photographed in May 2016, and the second on October 20, 2016.
The right pane is a zoomed-in view of the site. It clearly shows a dark spray of material that spans 130 feet wide, or roughly a 13-story building on its side — a sooty black stain that used to be Schiaparelli.
The newly released October 25 image from MRO also more clearly shows the locations of the lander’s crash site, heat shield, and parachute:
Mars is hard
Had Schiaparelli’s landed, it would have been the ESA’s first spacecraft to safely reach the surface of the red planet.
Unfortunately, these images mean the probe has joined a growing graveyard of failed Martian spacecraft.
For Russia, which collaborated with ESA on the mission, Schiaparelli is the nation’s seventh failed Mars landing (though it put two satellites into orbit around Mars while it was still the Soviet Union).
Fortunately, Schiaparelli is just one-half of the ExoMars 2016 mission; the other half is Schiaparelli’s mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). The ESA said the orbiter safely entered into Mars orbit, which means its task of sniffing for methane on Mars — a potential sign of microbial life — can begin.
The lander’s mission was designed as a precursor to a more ambitious rover mission planned for 2020, so it’s more of an engineering proof-of-concept than a science mission. Still, the mission failed and officials were quick to downplay the loss.
“We should remember this landing was a test,” Ferri said on October 20. “And as part of the test, you want to learn what happened,” he said, no matter the outcome.
Prior to Schiaparelli, humanity tried 18 times to touch Mars with penetrators, landers, and wheeled rovers. Only eight such missions have ever succeeded.
The last time the ESA tried to land a probe on Mars, in 2003, it failed. Its Beagle 2 lander successfully jettisoned from an orbiting spacecraft. Aside a final signal before its descent, however, the robot robot never contacted Earth again.
It wasn’t until January 2015 — more than a decade later — that NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found and photographed the dead rover in a satellite image. A subsequent investigation found that its solar panels had failed to deploy, so it never mustered the energy to phone home.
Had the new Schiaparelli probe survived, it would have also taken pictures of its descent and attempted to measure Mars’ electric field for the first time, among other limited scientific observations.
May it rest in pieces.
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