Mission scientists await signal from Mars lander

ExoMars probe went silent before touchdown

illustration of Schiaparelli lander

Researchers are waiting to hear from the Schiaparelli Mars lander (illustrated above), which went silent a few minutes before its scheduled landing on the Red Planet.

ESA, ATG Medialab

PASADENA, Calif. — The Schiaparelli Mars lander, scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet on October 19 at 10:48 a.m. EDT, went silent a few minutes before touchdown, leaving mission scientists hanging on whether the lander safely made it to the surface. Meanwhile, its counterpart, the Trace Gas Orbiter, appears to have successfully entered orbit around Mars.

“We can say the mission is not nominal, but it’s too early to speculate about what happened,” ESA planetary scientist Olivier Witasse said at an October 19 news briefing. “We’re hoping for the best of course.”

The Schiaparelli lander is part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission to, in part, test technology needed for a future European Mars rover. The lander was only expected to survive on the surface for a few Martian days.

A radio signal was received from the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope in India as the lander descended, indicating the probe survived initial entry into the atmosphere. Subsequent hiccups in the radio signal suggested that the parachute deployed on schedule. The Mars Express orbiter also detected a signal from the lander. But both signals cut out a few minutes before the scheduled landing.

The next chance to learn more will be in the next few hours when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter transmits telemetry that it recorded from the lander. The Trace Gas Orbiter also recorded data from the lander, which will be transmitted soon. The European Space Agency will provide an update October 20 at 4 a.m. EDT.

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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