Europe’s lander is lost on Mars

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Artist impression of the Schiaparelli module after the parachute has been deployed, in happier times .
Image: ES-AATG medialab

Mars is a cruel place, and it seems like it has claimed another victim.

The Schiaparelli lander, part of the joint life-hunting ExoMars mission between the European Space Agency( ESA) and Russia, was expected to make its soft touchdown on the Martian surface Wednesday, but something went wrong.

The ESA was receiving a swoon but present signal from the lander for much of Schiaparelli’s descent to the surface. However, in the final moments just before landing when the craft was supposed to fire its thrusters that signal was lost.

ESA Spacecraft Operations Manager Andrea Accomazzo said in a press briefing that the lander stopped transmitting about 50 seconds before the expected touchdown time.

Mission directors then investigated data from the ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft orbiting Mars, but that came back inconclusive.

At the press briefing, relevant agencies emphasised that the lander’s intent was to collect data, and it had accomplished that.

From the engineering standpoint, its what we want from a test, and we have extremely valuable data to work with. We will have an enquiry board to excavate deeper into the data and we cannot theorize farther at this time, told David Parker, ESAs Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration.

On the whole, humans don’t have a great track record when it comes to landing spacecraft on Mars.

This landing would have been only the eighth successful mission to the red planet’s surface, and the ESA’s first.

All landers and rovers sent to Mars have been NASA missions, aside from the Soviet Union’s Mars 3 craft, which operated on the planet’s surface for 20 seconds in the 1970 s. At the moment, NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity rovers are still functioning on Mars.

This hasn’t been a total loss for the ESA and Russia. In fact, the two agencies also had a huge success at the red planet.

The ExoMars mission as a whole is tasked with figuring out whether Mars currently plays host to life or did in the past by sniffing out the planet’s thin ambiance for tracing gasses that could indicate biological or geological signatures.

An orbiter sent to Mars with Schiaparelli as part of the mission did make it into its expected orbit around the red planet on Wednesday. That spacecraft will be used to beam back data about molecules it discovers in the Martian atmosphere.

Plus, the least, Schiaparelli did deploy its parachute and jettison its heat shield, so the lander did make it at least the members of the way down to the Martian surface, hopefully devoting scientists some idea of what could be done to increase the odds of landing next time.

And there will be a next time.

Schiaparelli was designed to serve as a technology demonstration to prove out the landing system needed to send full-scale mission to the red planet’s surface.

Now that the ESA has assured how the spacecraft’s heat shield, parachute and other tech run while landing on Mars, it will help inform the design for a landing platform and rover that should launch to Mars for the second section of the ExoMars mission as early as 2020.

That mission will drill down beneath the surface area of Mars to hunt for signs of past or present life.

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