Mars lander falls silent: Has it been lost?

Despite a less-than-ideal fate for the Schiaparelli lander, scientists at the European Space Agency are feeling positive: Space travel is supposed to be tricky, they say. 

ESA/ATG medialab/Reuters
An illustration released by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows the Schiaparelli EDM lander. A European space lander reached Mars on Oct. 19, 2016 in what scientists hope will mark a major milestone in exploration of the Red Planet, but it may have crashed landed.

Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) are using Thursday’s possibly failed landing on Mars as a learning experience.

The Schiaparelli Mars lander, named for the Italian astronomer who made the first maps of Mars in the 19th century, had a considerable job to do. The 1,272-pound vehicle had to travel more than 300,000,000 miles across the solar system, reaching Mars’ thin atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour, and then slow down enough as it passed through atmospheric drag to deploy a parachute, landing softly on the planet’s surface.

And all of this went according to plan, until the parachute was released more than half a mile above the Red Planet’s surface. The lander’s signal went quiet 50 seconds before landing, leaving ESA scientists to wonder if the probe crash-landed.

If the Schiaparelli probe had landed successfully on Mars, it would mark a first for Europe, which has never landed a probe on the Red Planet. The United States, however, recently celebrated the fourth birthday of NASA’s Curiosity after the rover landed on Mars in 2012.

Despite the disappointing ending, scientists are staying positive. 

"Yes, I am happy," Jan Woerner, ESA’s Director General, told The Guardian. "The engineers are doing great work, but you still need a bit of luck to succeed." 

"There are a number of things that went right," Jonathan McDowell, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Popular Mechanics. "They successfully navigated to the top of the Martian atmosphere, the heat shield separated correctly, the parachute – and supersonic Martian parachutes are a really tricky thing to get right – worked, the separation event of all the different pieces coming off seems to have worked. So they've ticked off three or four of the five or six pieces that are needed to make a successful descent."

However, the ExoMars program, a collaboration between the ESA and Russia’s space agency, had high expectations for the Schiaparelli lander. 

Schiaparelli’s landing was planned to set the stage for part two of the ExoMars mission: to land a six-wheeled rover (similar to NASA’s Curiosity) in 2020. Because of the future rover’s $330 million price tag, ExoMars leaders were hoping Schiaparelli’s success would reassure investors.

But Mr. Woerner isn’t worried. 

"Schiaparelli's primary role was to test European landing technologies," he said in a press release. "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."

And for now, scientists will study the data that Schiaparelli was able to submit – equivalent to 400,000 pages of information. 

"From the engineering standpoint, it’s what we want from a test, and we have extremely valuable data to work with," added David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration. "We will have an enquiry board to dig deeper into the data and we cannot speculate further at this time."

It's possible the rover may still be located.

"When we put it in the Martian environment, the spacecraft didn’t behave exactly as expected," Andrea Accomazzo, ESA’s spacecraft operations manager told The Guardian. "It might take quite some time before we are able to locate it."

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