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Imagery from a Mars orbiter

Imagery from a Mars orbiter shows a bright parachute and a dark smudge 1 kilometer north of it.


Update: R.I.P. Schiaparelli: Crash site spotted for European Mars lander

Update: Poor Schiaparelliyour life was so short. Imagery released on 21 October from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows the bright, reflective surface of a parachute, and 1 kilometer north of it, a dark patch on the ground where before there had been nothing. In a statement, the European Space Agency (ESA) said this could be a small crater from the lander’s impact at more than 300 kilometers per hour, having fallen from an altitude of between 2 and 4 kilometers after its thrusters cut out too early. “It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely full,” ESA said in its statement. Better imagery of the crash site could come in subsequent days from a higher resolution camera on MRO. Meanwhile, ESA reports that the Trace Gas Orbiterthe main scientific rationale for the ExoMars 2016 missionis in good health, and is set to begin slowly lowering the altitude of its orbit so that it can begin looking for methane and other gases that could signal life on Mars.

DARMSTADT, GERMANY—The morning after, we know little more about the fate of Europe’s Mars lander Schiaparelli than we did last night: It ceased communicating 50 seconds before its predicted landing time and all efforts to contact it again have been met with a stony silence. As the hours pass, it seems increasingly likely that the lander crashed onto the Red Planet instead of making a gentle touchdown.

But mission managers here at the European Space Agency's mission control center are putting a positive spin on the situation. With the data received during the descent, they say they will still learn important lessons for the much larger rover that ESA and its Russian partner Roscosmos will dispatch to the Red Planet in 2020.

More importantly, the larger part of the mission—the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO)—made a faultless entry into Mars orbit and demonstrated its abilities as a data relay station by capturing signals that Schiaparelli sent out as it approached the planet. “The relay station is established, but the lander leaves open questions,” ESA Director General Jan Wörner told journalists this morning.

Although primarily a technology demonstrator, Schiaparelli was also intended to carry out some science, and those researchers who hoped to study the martian atmosphere during the lander's descent at least get some data. But the team that built its meteorological instruments for use once landed look to be coming away empty-handed. “If Schiaparelli is not talking then we get no data,” says Francesca Esposito of the Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy, who heads the meteorology team. Its instruments “may be alive but we just don’t know,” she says.

It's space-it doesn't collaborate.

Francesca Esposito, Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte

Throughout the night, ESA engineers have been sifting through data transmitted up to the TGO by Schiaparelli as it descended and later relayed to Earth. It’s clear now that the lander entered the martian atmosphere as planned, its heat shield protecting it from the severe frictional heat while it was slowing down. Its parachute opened flawlessly and the craft continued to descend toward the surface. But something appeared to go wrong at the moment the lander dropped out of its heat shield and abandoned its parachute. Operations Manager Andrea Accomazzo confirmed that the lander’s radar altimeter did switch on and that its retro rockets fired up to slow its descent, “but only for a few seconds, shorter than expected,” he said.

ESA staff hope they will be able to find out more once they’ve studied the readout from all of Schiaparelli’s sensors. The descent “yielded a huge amount of data. We need to understand what happened in the last few seconds before landing,” said David Parker, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration. 

The plan had been for Schiaparelli to send up to an orbiter a more detailed data set on the descent—with higher data sampling rates—once it had reached the ground, but the lander has not so far responded to “hailing” signals. The TGO is now out of range but NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) passed over the area twice during the night; it did not get a response. “If there is a signal, we will pick it up,” Accomazzo said.

ESA officials contrasted the current situation with that of Beagle 2, the U.K.-built lander that was delivered to Mars by ESA’s Mars Express 13 years ago. That had no way to communicate during its descent so nothing was known of its fate until it was photographed by the MRO last year. only partially opened and unable to communicate. “One of the lessons we learned from Beagle 2 was to have a data relay,” Parker said.

Time is pressing for Schiaparelli, because its batteries are not designed to last for long on the surface: a minimum of four martian days, or “sols”—which are 39 minutes longer than an Earth day—and possibly as long as 10. If Schiaparelli maintains its silence, said ExoMars mission manager Don McCoy, the team will send commands to reset the transmitter, in the hope that will bring it back to life. “Once we enter the machine, then we can reset other things,” added McCoy, who is based at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

ESA chief Wörner was asked whether the upbeat press conference was because ESA still has to ask its member governments for another €300 million to complete the second phase of ExoMars, due for launch in 2020. “We don’t have to convince them, the [positive] result is obvious,” Wörner maintained. “Mars exploration is hard, that’s why we do it,” Parker said.

Disappointed scientists were putting a brave face on the situation too. Esposito’s experiment had aimed to study for the first time the effect of electric field on the creation of martian dust storms. “We are sad because we recorded no data. If we had been able to last just 2 sols [on the surface], we would be able to do new science,” she says. “But everything we learned we will use for ExoMars 2020.” Her team is working on several new instruments for the future mission.

Francesca Ferri of the University of Padua in Italy, leads a team planning to use data from Schiaparelli’s engineering sensors to study Mars’s atmosphere; that group has at least a partial success. “We are taking a snapshot of the atmosphere while Schiaparelli descends, investigating the dynamics of the atmosphere, how it works,” she says. “Such in situ measurements are not possible with remote sensing" from orbiters. But Ferri and her colleagues had hoped to study the atmospheric boundary layer close to the surface, where convection plays a role, something that is particularly hard for orbiting sensors to probe. “We are disappointed not to have the surface phase" of the descent, she says.

Esposito is philosophical about the mission. “It’s space," she says. "It doesn’t collaborate.”

*Update, 21 October, 5:07 p.m.: This article has been updated with new information from the European Space Agency.