Miscalculation Destroys Lander
In 2016, erroneous height measurement makes the Schiaparelli lander collide with Mars at a speed of 540 km/h.
When the Eurpoean Space Agency, ESA, launches the Trace Gas probe towards Mars on 14 March 2016, the aims are high. The probe brings the Schiaparelli landing module, and together, the two make up the first part of the ExoMars mission, which is to find out whether there is life on the Red Planet.
Everything goes according to plan, when, three days before its arrival to Mars, the probe lets go of its lander. Whereas the probe is to orbit Mars, searching for molecular evidence of life in the atmosphere, Schiaparelli is a test craft, which is to test the landing technologies that will be necessary in 2020, when ExoMars is to land a sophisticated rover on Mars.
On 19 October, following three days in a state of hibernation, Schiaparelli is reactivated, starting to slow down at an altitude of 122.5 km. At an altitude of 11 km, the speed has been reduced from 21,000 to 1,650 km/h, and the parachute is activated. When it is shed at an altitude of 1.3 km, the craft’s motors are to reduce the speed to 7 km/h. But a negative altitude measurement makes the craft shed it parachute too early, crashing onto the red surface of Mars.
Rover stuck in Martian soil
With a radiation-scorched, barren surface and an atmosphere that is almost only made up of carbon dioxide, Mars is not a friendly place. As compared to Venus, the Red Planet – with its lower temperatures and tolerable pressure – is nevertheless a world that astronomers consider an obvious place to colonize in the future.
In an effort to research the conditions on the surface, NASA and other organizations have over the years sent landers, probes, and rovers to the planet. Of those, 14 have ended their lives on the Red Planet. That is true for the six-wheeled Spirit rover, which has been stuck since 2009.
The rover arrived after a six month journey to Mars in January 2004 – three weeks before its twin, Opportunity. According to plan, the rover was to move about for 92 days to collect geological and chemical data, but the mission was prolonged over and over again. The small rover managed to work on the planet 24 times longer than planned and cover at total of 7.73 km – i.e. 12 times longer than the 600 m, which were originally the aim.
On 1 May 2009, the rover got stuck in a sandy area of the Gusev Crater near Mars’ equator. It continued to send data back until March 2010, when it failed, probably because it had spent the winter in a too cold place. For nine months, engineers of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tried to wake the rover up, but in vain, so the Spirit mission officially ended on 11 May 2011.
Since then, NASA engineers have been working hard to invent new wheels, which are not only suited for both soft and hard surfaces, but can also handle more weight. The wheels will probably be introduced on NASA’s 2020 rover.
Missing probe reemerges
Although astronomers generally know where their spacecraft are, a few have gone missing. That is true for the two Soviet Phobos 1 and 2 probes, which disappeared as a result of a computer error and an incorrect command from the control centre.
Sometimes, engineers find spacecraft again after years without contact. In August 2009, the Indian space agency lost contact with the small Chandrayaan-1 moon craft. Astronomers thought that the craft might have been drawn close to the Moon by its gravity and had crashed onto the surface.
In 2016, NASA invents a new method for finding even small craft such as Chandray-aan-1 orbiting around the Moon. So far, it has been difficult, as the light from the Moon can easily prevent telescopes from spotting the small objects. But with the help of two radio telescopes located in California and West Virginia, USA,
NASA was able to spot the small Indian craft. One telescope emitted a powerful microwave signal, after which the other telescope received the reflected signal from Chandrayaan-1, as it passed over the Moon’s north pole at an altitude of about 160 km. The telescopes followed up with observations for the next three months, mapping out the probe’s accurate orbit. Even though the craft has now been found, there is no contact.
So far, engineers must consequently be happy that the probe is not included in the vast quantities of wreckage on Earth’s loyal follower. A total of 59 crafts, including manned Apollo missions carried out by NASA and a series of unmanned craft launched by the space agencies of the world have over time left a mixture of old landing stages, worn-out upper rocket stages, and other hardware on the surface of the Moon.
Burning protects worlds with life
On the two gas giants of the Solar System, Jupiter and Saturn, burials do not take place as a result of computer or engine errors, they are carried out on purpose. The planets are huge balls of gas without solid surfaces to land on, but the reason for the scheduled suicides is to be found in a different place, i.e. on the moons orbiting the gas giants.
Moons such as Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus are at the top of astronomers’ list of other Solar System worlds that could include biological life. Even though the surfaces of the moons are barren and icy, large oceans with liquid water could exist under the thick ice sheets. The tremendous gravitational pull of Jupiter and Saturn leaves enough energy in the moons to create a tidal effect that heats the water, making it liquid. If there is also volcanic activity on the ocean floor, astrobiologists suddenly have all the elements of the equation that – at least on Earth – are synonymous with life.
If astronomers do one day find life on one of the Moons, they want to make sure that the organisms are not really from Earth.
Consequently, the spacecraft are laboriously assembled in clean rooms, in which the quantity of dust, bacteria, and other sources of contamination are minimal. Still, it cannot be completely ruled out that a spacecraft could bring microbes from Earth. As scientists lose control of spacecraft, when they run out of fuel, they do not wish to risk that a stray craft strikes one of the moons, leaving life from Earth.
When the Juno probe enters Jupiter’s atmosphere in July 2018 after seven years in space, burning up in the course of a few minutes, the burial is completely intentional. Such cremation will not only bring the probe close to Jupiter’s atmosphere, it will also prevent the probe from striking one of Jupiter’s five moons at some point in the future, leaving microbes from Earth.
Only in this way, NASA can make sure that any future discovery of life on another world is surely a sensation.
Whereas Juno will be sacrificed, scientists have other plans with another guest of the outer Solar System, New Horizons. After a successful mission near Pluto, the probe is now on its way towards the next destination in the Kuiper Belt, before it will finally end its life in interstellar space.
It can't be ruled out that a spacecraft could bring microbes from Earth.
The first part of the ExoMars mission consisted of a probe and a landing module.