A duo of Mars exploration craft rendezvoused with the Red Planet yesterday, but malfunctions appear to have marred the last phase of the descent to the planet’s surface of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Schiaparelli lander. Although space agency officials said they are confident that many of Schiaparelli’s landing procedures occurred as intended, ESA operations lost communication with the lander moments before it was supposed to touch down.
Although Schiaparelli’s descent might have ended badly, the Smart-car-sized lander gathered data on Mars’s atmosphere on the way down and has sent those data back to Earth, according to ESA scientists. They said the lander also successfully tested entry and landing technology for a future, heavier rover—the next step of ExoMars, a joint Mars mission led by ESA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities.
ESA posted a notice on its website today saying that it was analyzing additional data to understand what happened with Schiaparelli and why the craft’s intended soft landing didn’t take place. “Schiaparelli’s primary role was to test European landing technologies. Recording the data during the descent was part of that, and it is important we can learn what happened, in order to prepare for the future,” said Jan Wörner, ESA’s director general.
The video below simulates Schiaparelli’s hypothetical landing: After the probe entered Mars’s atmosphere at 12,000 kilometers per hour, it had to slow down dramatically before it could land, with help from a heat shield, a parachute, and individual thrusters. Data sent back from the lander indicate that its heat shield and parachutes did indeed deploy, but, because scientists lost signal moments before its intended landing, they’re not sure of Schiaparelli’s fate.
Meanwhile, Schiaparelli’s companion on its journey from Earth to Mars, a spacecraft called the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), successfully entered Mars’s orbit. Over the next several months, TGO will settle into a long-term orbit about 400 kilometers above Mars’s surface—that’s the average distance between Earth and the International Space Station. There the orbiter will begin investigating gases in Mars’s atmosphere, specifically looking for methane, which scientists have detected in the atmosphere without identifying its source. TGO will also measure other gases, like water vapor, nitrogen oxides, and acetylene, and is expected to operate until at least 2022.
“Methane on Mars is a longstanding puzzle,” Andrew Coates of the University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory told The Guardian. “Is it coming from geological activity under the surface or is it coming from life? Either of those would be amazing, but life would of course be stunning,” said Coates, who works on the ExoMars rover.
“Following yesterday’s events, we have an impressive orbiter around Mars ready for science and for relay support for the ExoMars rover mission in 2020,” Wörner said.
ESA and Roscosmos launched Schiaparelli and TGO back in March. The robotic team makes up the first phase of ExoMars. In 2020 the agencies will launch the more heavy-duty ExoMars rover to investigate Mars’s surface. That rover will have a drill capable of reaching 2 meters below the dusty surface.
Before then, in 2018, NASA plans to land its InSight probe on Mars to study the planet’s seismic activity and interior temperature.
—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer