Im­ages re­veal crashed Mars lan­der

Malta Independent - - SCIENCE -

The Euro­pean Space Agency has tried hard to avoid us­ing the words “crash” or “fail­ure” about its at­tempted Mars landing but the fate of the space­craft is cru­elly ex­posed in new pic­tures.

The Schi­a­par­elli lan­der is seen in greater de­tail than ever be­fore, ly­ing on the Mar­tian sur­face.

It is well within its in­tended landing zone but ob­vi­ously un­able to func­tion.

The im­ages, gath­ered by Nasa, could pro­vide im­por­tant new clues about what went wrong.

They show a dark patch around the cap­sule - a pos­si­ble hint that a fuel tank ex­ploded and the in­di­ca­tion is that the im­pact gouged out a crater 50cm deep.

Last week’s landing - a joint Esa-Rus­sian Space Agency (Roscos­mos) en­deav­our - was billed as a “tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tor” to pave the way for a far big­ger ven­ture in 2020 with a so­phis­ti­cated rover to hunt for clues about life.

The loss raises dif­fi­cult ques­tions about the risks in­volved in that fol­low-on mis­sion and whether Esa’s mem­ber gov­ern­ments will be too ner­vous to pledge the funds needed to mount it.

The Schi­a­par­elli space­craft was meant to touch down last week us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of a heat­shield and a para­chute to slow its fall and retro-rock­ets to lower it to the sur­face.

In­stead com­mu­ni­ca­tions were lost dur­ing what should have been the fi­nal minute of the de­scent and it is es­ti­mated that the space­craft hit the ground at about 300kph.

It was quickly es­tab­lished that the para­chute and back cover were re­leased ear­lier than they should have been, ac­cord­ing to a pre-pro­grammed se­quence of tasks.

It is also known that the retro­rock­ets, which should have fired for 30 sec­onds, only op­er­ated for three or four sec­onds, and the lan­der prob­a­bly fell from a height of 2-4km.

In the af­ter­math of the at­tempt, Esa’s Direc­tor-Gen­eral, Jan Wo­erner, claimed that the mis­sion was a suc­cess be­cause the space­craft trans­mit­ted data for five of the six min­utes of its de­scent, pro­vid­ing use­ful in­for­ma­tion and prov­ing that key stages of the op­er­a­tion had worked well.

He also high­lighted that the lan­der’s mother ship, known as the Trace Gas Or­biter, had been suc­cess­fully placed in an or­bit that would al­low it to sniff the Mar­tian at­mos­phere for hints of meth­ane.

Soon after the mis­sion, Nasa’s Mars Re­con­nais­sance Or­biter gath­ered pic­tures of the landing zone which re­vealed the pres­ence of two new dots in the Mar­tian land­scape - a dark one for the space­craft and a white one for the para­chute.

Now the same space­craft has used its more pow­er­ful HiRise cam­era - with a res­o­lu­tion of 30cm per pixel - to fo­cus on the landing zone and pro­duce the im­ages re­leased to­day.

In a bit­ter irony, it was the same US or­biter that man­aged to spot Europe’s ear­lier at­tempt at a Mars landing, with the Bea­gle2 mis­sion in 2003.

Those im­ages showed how the tiny craft had made it to the sur­face in one piece but then failed to fully open its so­lar pan­els which meant that it could not com­mu­ni­cate or sur­vive.

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