Hard crash-land­ing may have wrecked Europe’s Mars probe

Malta Independent - - SCIENCE -

Sci­en­tists say Europe’s ex­per­i­men­tal Mars probe has hit the right spot but may have been de­stroyed in a fiery ball of rocket fuel be­cause it was trav­el­ling too fast.

Pic­tures taken by a NASA satel­lite show a black spot where the Schi­a­par­elli lan­der was meant to touch down Wed­nes­day, the Euro­pean Space Agency said. The im­ages end days of spec­u­la­tion over the probe’s likely fate fol­low­ing un­ex­pected ra­dio si­lence less than a minute be­fore the planned land­ing.

The agency said in a state­ment that the probe dropped from a height of two to four kilo­me­tres and struck the sur­face at a speed ex­ceed­ing 300 kph (186 mph), “there­fore im­pact­ing at a con­sid­er­able speed.”

It said the large dis­tur­bance cap­tured in the NASA pho­to­graphs may have been caused by the probe’s steep crash-land­ing, which would have sprayed mat­ter around like a blast site on Earth.

“It is also pos­si­ble that the lan­der ex­ploded on im­pact, as its thruster pro­pel­lant tanks were likely still full,” the agency said.

Schi­a­par­elli was de­signed to test tech­nol­ogy for a more am­bi­tious Euro­pean Mars land­ing in 2020. The Euro­pean Space Agency said the probe’s mother ship was suc­cess­fully placed into or­bit Wed­nes­day and soon will be­gin an­a­lyz­ing the Mar­tian at­mos­phere in search for ev­i­dence of life.

“In my heart, of course I’m sad that we couldn’t land softly on the sur­face of Mars,” agency chief Jan Wo­erner told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “But the main part of the mis­sion is the sci­ence that will be done by the or­biter.”

Wo­erner said en­gi­neers re­ceived a wealth of data from the lan­der be­fore the crash that will prove valu­able for the next at­tempt in four years. He de­scribed the mis­sion as “a 96 per­cent suc­cess.”

Still, the crash-land­ing was a painful re­minder of how hard it is to put a space­craft on the sur­face of the red planet.

Its rest­ing place was pho­tographed by NASA’s Mars Re­con­nais­sance Or­biter , which also spot­ted Europe’s last ill-fated mis­sion to the sur­face of the planet. The Bea­gle 2 probe landed on Mars in 2003 but failed to de­ploy its so­lar pan­els prop­erly, pre­vent­ing it from func­tion­ing.

There have been only seven suc­cess­ful ro­botic land­ings on Mars, all by NASA. The last land­ing was in 2012, when the Cu­rios­ity rover touched down in a crater.

Land­ing on Mars is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult be­cause of the planet’s thin, dusty at­mos­phere. In­bound space­craft hit the at­mos­phere at 12,000 mph (19,300 kph) and have only min­utes to slow down and land.

With the loss of Schi­a­par­elli, only two space­craft are cur­rently roam­ing the Mar­tian sur­face: Cu­rios­ity and Op­por­tu­nity, which landed in 2004.

The Euro­pean Space Agency said that, ac­cord­ing to what its sci­en­tists have been able to piece to­gether so far, Schi­a­par­elli suf­fered prob­lems dur­ing the last 50 sec­onds of its de­scent through the harsh at­mos­phere.

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 first is a bright spot of about 12 me­ters (39 feet) in di­am­e­ter. The agency says that’s likely to be Schi­a­par­elli’s para­chute.

The sec­ond fea­ture was de­scribed as “a fuzzy dark patch roughly 15 by 40 me­ters in size” north of the para­chute. That’s likely to be the lan­der.

“These pre­lim­i­nary in­ter­pre­ta­tions will be re­fined fol­low­ing fur­ther anal­y­sis” and a high-res­o­lu­tion pic­ture in the com­ing days, the agency said.

While Schi­a­par­elli was able to beam back some 600 megabytes of data be­fore the crash, sci­en­tists won’t get any of the close-up pho­tos the probe took dur­ing its de­scent. Those were meant to be trans­mit­ted af­ter the land­ing.

ESA said the other part of the Ex­oMars mis­sion — the Trace Gas Or­biter — was “work­ing very well and will take sci­ence cal­i­bra­tion data dur­ing two or­bits in Novem­ber.”

The space­craft then is sup­posed to de­scend to an al­ti­tude of about 400 kilo­me­ters (250 miles) and be­gin its study of Mars next year. The or­biter will act as a ra­dio re­lay for the next stage of the Ex­oMars mis­sion and fu­ture at­tempts to land on the planet.

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