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Schiaparelli lander
An artist’s conception shows the Schiaparelli lander at the end of its parachute. (Credit: ESA)

The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander apparently crashed after its parachute was ejected too early and its thrusters switched off too soon, according to data relayed back from its orbiting mothership.

“We have data coming back that allow us to fully understand the steps that did occur, and why the soft landing did not occur,” David Parker, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, said today in a news release.

However, ESA emphasized that the analysis was still continuing, and the conclusions were only preliminary.

The good news is that the saucer-shaped lander’s mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, entered its intended orbit around Mars on Wednesday and is in good health.

The orbiter received telemetry from the lander during Wednesday’s descent through the Martian atmosphere and relayed it back early today via a network of radio antennas to ESA’s operations center in Darmstadt, Germany.

The relayed readings show that Schiaparelli’s “six minutes of terror” proceeded according to plan until the probe ejected its back heat shield and its parachute. The ejection apparently occurred earlier than expected, ESA said.

 

Schiaparelli activated its thrusters in preparation for landing, but ESA said it seems likely that they switched off earlier than expected, at an altitude yet to be determined. The probe continued to send radio signals for another 19 seconds or so. Then the signals abruptly ended, 50 seconds sooner than expected.

That would be consistent with the scenario for a high-speed crash onto the surface.

The lander’s prime objective was to test the technologies for sending ESA’s ExoMars rover to Mars in 2021. Although Schiaparelli didn’t get down to the surface safely, ESA Director General Jan Wörner looked at the bright side.

“Schiaparelli’s primary role was to test European landing technologies,” he said. “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.”

Meanwhile, the Trace Gas Orbiter will go through a checkout period in preparation for its science mission, during which it will analyze the Martian atmosphere for traces of methane and other potential fingerprints of biological or geochemical activity.

The outcome was shaping up as a sequel to ESA’s Mars Express mission in 2003, which resulted in the successful arrival of an orbiter but the failure of the Beagle 2 lander. In the earlier case, Beagle 2 apparently reached the surface intact but wasn’t able to deploy its solar panels fully.

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