Mars lander silent as mission scientists work out what went wrong

illustration of Schiaparelli landing sequence

The intended landing sequence for the Schiaparelli lander did not appear to go as planned once the parachute separated from the probe, mission controllers report.

ATG Medialab, ESA

The Schiaparelli Mars lander remains silent since its attempted landing October 19 on the Red Planet. All data transmitted by the lander during its descent have been relayed to Earth, and mission scientists are now in the thick of trying to figure out what went wrong.

“I am extremely confident that we’ll be able to fully understand what happened,” ESA spacecraft operations manager Andrea Accomazzo said at an October 20 news briefing. Schiaparelli is most likely on the surface, but its condition remains unknown.

Early data indicate that Schiaparelli survived most of its parachute entry, but in the last few seconds before jettisoning the chute, something unexpected happened. Mission scientists cannot say yet what that “something” was. The retrorocket designed to slow it down further did appear to fire, but for a shorter time than expected. Mission scientists also don’t yet know if all the rockets fired as planned. Further details will come with the analysis of data received from the lander.

Other spacecraft orbiting Mars will continue to listen for a signal from Schiaparelli, which has enough battery power to last a few Martian days, maybe more. The lander was designed as an experiment to test technologies and protocols for safely dropping a payload on the surface of the Red Planet, such as a rover planned to arrive in 2021.

The Trace Gas Orbiter, which also arrived as part of the ExoMars mission, appears healthy and in orbit around the Red Planet, ready to undertake an investigation of trace gases in the Martian atmosphere.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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