The European Space Agency’s unmanned Schiaparelli Lander has apparently crashed into the surface of Mars on what was intended to be the agency’s first landing on the planet’s surface. The ESA may not be able to confirm for weeks whether a high-speed collision was indeed the cause of the loss of contact with the craft, but the data transmitted by the craft in the moments leading up to radio silence seems to indicate that a crash was likely. Though the first five minutes of the descent proceeded as planned, the retrorockets intended to deaccelerate for the landing fired for only three to four seconds instead of the intended 30 seconds necessary for a soft and successful landing. 19 seconds after those thrusters fired, the transmission was lost.
“If you’re talking about the lander going down at 200 km/h or so… that would mean we lost the lander,” said Jorge Vago, the ExoMars project scientist.
Though the belly of the lander included a crushable structure intended to soften the landing, it was prepared for a much slower landing than the one that most likely occurred. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is in the process of trying to image the landing site to confirm the outcome, but it could take weeks or months to find the small landing craft.
The Schiaparelli lander was intended as a way to demonstrate technology for the ESA’s 2020 mission to land a rover on the planet, so a crash landing would likely affect plans for that mission in four years. Currently, plans for the rover share entail a similar design for the radar, accelerometer, gyroscope, and computer with the Schiaparelli lander.
“The concern is will we be able to learn enough from this attempt to be sure that the next one, which is much more ambitious, will work well?” according to Vago.
The incident echoes the fate of the Beagle 2 lander, part of the agency’s Mars Express mission in 2003. Contact with the craft was lost, and the ESA declared the mission lost in 2004. Its fate was not confirmed until January of 2015, when it was found on the surface of the planet, intact, by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
However, the ESA’s journey to Mars was not a total loss. The Schiaparelli Lander traveled to Mars with a sister craft, the Trace Gas Orbiter, which arrived safely. This probe will orbit the planet, investigating the source of methane emanating from the surface. Scientists have suggested that this gas may be a sign of microbial life on Mars. The Orbiter is expected to operate, collecting data to relay back to Earth, until 2020.