ExoMars Lander Crash Site Found

The Meridiani Planum after Schiaparelli landed as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has found Schiaparelli EDM, the European Space Agency’s lander, but unfortunately the image is consistent with a high-velocity crash landing.  

There was little hope for the probe since ESA lost contact with it last Wednesday and as data from its fully operational orbiting counterpart ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) indicated that something went wrong as the lander flew through the atmosphere.

The low-resolution camera on board NASA’s MRO took a picture of the landing site, known as Meridiani Planum, on October 20 and discovered two previously unseen features that are likely related to Schiaparelli.

In the image, which has a resolution of 6 meters (20 feet) per pixel, there is a bright spot 12 meters (40 feet) across that is believed to be the lander’s parachute. One kilometer (0.62 miles) north, there’s a 40-by-15-meter (130-by-50-foot) fuzzy dark patch that is believed to be the impact crater left over by the probe. It is possible that the probe exploded on impact.

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The Meridiani Planum before and after Schiaparelli landed. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

During a press conference last Thursday, ESA explained that the preliminary data suggests that several factors might have played a role in the demise of the lander. It appears that the parachute was jettisoned too soon and the thrusters fired only for three or four seconds instead of the supposed 30.

The probe might have met a fiery death, but its unplanned sacrifice was not in vain. Schiaparelli was an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module that collected heaps of crucial data on its way down, even if didn’t stick its landing. ESA’s engineers are currently analyzing this data, which future missions will likely be able to benefit from.

Schiaparelli might be gone, but the mission continues for the TGO. The orbiter’s mission is to study indirect traces of life, like methane, in the Martian atmosphere. The spacecraft will begin the calibration of its scientific instruments in November, and in March it will be moved to a lower orbit to begin its full scientific mission.

TGO will also be used as a relay for the ExoMars 2020 rover, although changes will be necessary for it to safely reach the ground. Landing on Mars remains a difficult affair, with about half of all missions successfully touching down on the Red Planet.

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