After rough descent, Europe's Mars lander is probably dead
Mars has apparently claimed another robotic explorer. Europe’s Schiaparelli Mars lander is most likely dead on arrival, after something went wrong during its parachute flight and its hover-rockets didn’t ignite for long enough. European Space Agency engineers are still trying to piece together exactly what went wrong.
They know it successfully separated from its mothership and traveling companion, the Trace Gas Orbiter, over the weekend. They know it successfully entered Mars’s atmosphere Wednesday, plummeting toward the ground with its radar-tracking turned on. They know its heat shield protected the lander almost all the way down, and that it deployed its parachute. But after that, they don't know what happened.
“From this point on, the lander has definitely not behaved exactly as we had expected,” Andrea Accomazzo, head of solar and planetary operations, said in a news conference early Thursday. “Now it is a matter to analyze why, when we put this hardware in the Martian environment, the spacecraft didn’t behave exactly as we had expected.”
The mission team is still not sure whether Schiaparelli survived intact, he added. It's possible the lander was flying too fast. Its rockets only fired for three or four seconds, but they were supposed to ignite for 30 seconds.
“We are not in a position yet, but we will be, to determine the dynamic condition under which the lander touched the ground. Then we know whether it could have survived structurally or not,” Accomazzo said. “We are not in a position to say that now, because we don’t have any data. We are still processing the data from the descent. From the surface, we have no data at all.”
There is one piece of good news: Some of the instruments on board Schiaparelli were recording atmospheric data as it screamed through the Martian atmosphere, and scientists are eager to analyze it. Michel Denis, ExoMars flight director, said Schiaparelli recorded some 600 MB of data on its way down.