Images suggest Schiaparelli Mars lander exploded on impact
The confirmation came from the USA space agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting Mars for almost 10 years, managing to surprise in some low-resolution images the site where Schiaparelli crashed. Although the landing was a failure, overall the mission was a success because the Schiaparelli lander's mothership has been brought into orbit around Mars, which will begin to analyze the gasses in the atmosphere of Mars that indicate the presence of life.
Roughly half of the 50-plus spacecraft sent to land on or orbit Mars have met untimely ends, and Schiaparelli now among them.
Despite the loss of Schiaparelli, ESA says that the engineering telemetry received will be very valuable in not only determining the cause of the crash but in improving future Mars landers.
Newly released photos taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appear to have captured the gravesite of the lost probe, which seems to confirm what members of the ExoMars team initially suspected, that Schiaparelli crashed while attempting to touch down on the Martian surface.
Schiaparelli, a disc-shaped 577-kg lander, is part of the European-Russian ExoMars program, which aims to search for signs of past and present life on Mars and evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gasses that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes.
"Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometers (1.4-2.4 miles), therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph)", the agency said.
The Trace Gas Orbiter, which is now circling the Red Planet and was the vehicle that delivered the probe, is sending back data that scientists are analyzing to try to understand what went wrong.
The picture taken by NASA's orbiter shows two features that weren't visible on the surface when the spacecraft photographed the area in May.
The ESA statement reads: "One of the features is bright and can be associated with the 12-m diameter parachute used in the second stage of Schiaparelli's descent, after the initial heat shield entry".
Because the rockets turned off early, much of their fuel was still onboard when the spacecraft shattered in the red dust of Mars, making it possible that the lander exploded on impact, the agency said. They found that a heat shield and parachute meant to slow the craft down from a speed of 21,000 km per hour deployed as expected. "These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis", the ESA added.
ESA scientists have been poring over data that the Schiaparelli lander transmitted before its signal was lost, to look for clues as to what happened.
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