The European Space Agency's desire to scavenge Mars to see if it's harboring any kind of lifeform has just seen another major setback. The Agency's Mars lander, named Schiaparelli, was scheduled to enter the red planet this Wednesday but didn't send any data to mission control a minute before it reached the surface.
There is no doubt among experts, both involved in the initiative and those watching from the sidelines, that the lander has crashed and burned during its six-minute descent. "It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full," said the European Space Agency.
Schiaparelli's Parachute And Retro Thrusters Didn't Work As Intended
To track down where Schiaparelli met its costly demise, scientists used Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft to map out a flat equatorial region known as Meridiana Planum. The ESA released images showing features of what looked like a crash site that was absent when the orbiter photographed the region in May this year.
The photos depicted a bright spot thought to be the lander's parachute, while the other is a "fuzzy dark patch" about 15m by 40m (50ft by 133ft) in size. "This is interpreted as arising from the impact of the Schiaparelli module itself following a much longer freefall than planned after the thrusters were switched off prematurely," said officials of the ESA.
Initial investigation states that Schiaparelli's retro thrusters only fired for only three to four seconds instead of the planned 29, according to Belfast Telegraph. It's also thought that the lander deployed its parachute too early.
The thrusters were supposed to slow Schiaparelli's descent from 270 km/h to 7 km/h before tapering off and allowing the lander to have a relatively soft landing. Instead, the mishap resulted in a dropped from a height of two to four kilometers and slammed on Mar's dusty surface at more than 300 km/h.
ESA'S Recent Failure Could End Up Cancelling Its Plan To Send The ExoMars Rover in 2020
This failure threatens to halt ESA's 2020 initiative where it will launch the ExoMars Rover, a six-wheeled British-made laboratory that will drill to the surface of the red planet to scour any signs of life. The agency will gather this December for their annual meeting where Jan Woerner, ESA's director general, will seek funding of about €300m (£270m) for ExoMars to move forward, reported The Guardian.
Following Schiaparelli's mishap, the agency will undoubtedly have a difficult time convincing ministers that the same result will not happen again. However, there is still hope.
Schiaparelli's main purpose was to test the automated Russian-design landing system to be used by the ExoMars Rover. And in a way, the lander did exactly that.
Scientists say that though the landing wasn't what they hoped for, the mountains of data collected over the course of this endeavor will help them further improve the design come 2020. "The silver lining is that we got extremely good data back for entry and descent. We know where the problem is," said Jorge Vago, ExoMars' project scientist.