The European Space Agency (ESA) announced today that its newest Mars lander, Schiaparelli, entered Mars’s atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. EDT on 19 October and most likely crash-landed on the surface.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sent back images of Schiaparelli’s landing site, Meridiani Planum, showing the spacecraft and its landing technology scattered nearby. ESA lost contact with the lander shortly before touchdown and has been analyzing data about its descent.
During its 6-minute descent, Schiaparelli’s parachute and heat shield successfully deployed, but the last-stage thrusters, which were supposed to slow the spacecraft down to a safe free-fall speed, shut down too early. The lander was designed to test landing entry technology for future missions.
According to a statement issued by ESA, scientists estimate that the spacecraft dropped from 2–4 kilometers above Mars’s surface, which means that it would have hit the surface at a speed greater than 300 kilometers per hour. It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact.
Schiaparelli’s mothership, a spacecraft called the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), successfully entered Mars’s orbit on 21 October. Both crafts are the beginning stages for ESA’s joint ExoMars mission with Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. Over the next several months, the ExoMars team will prepare to use TGO to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, looking for methane and other gases indicative of biological processes. In 2020, ESA plans to launch a new, more heavy-duty rover to study Mars’s surface.
Although Schiaparelli’s life ended swiftly, “A substantial amount of extremely valuable Schiaparelli engineering data were relayed back to the TGO during the descent and [are] being analyzed by engineers day and night,” the ESA statement noted.
—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer