ESA’s Mars craft landed, but not softly

UPDATE: October 20, 2016 0945 UTC. The European Space Agency (ESA) landed its Schiaparelli spacecraft on Mars yesterday (October 19, 2016), as part of its ExoMars mission. Radio telescopes on Earth lost the signal from Schiaparelli on its landing, and, although ESA is now analyzing various data on the landing, both from Earth and from other spacecraft orbiting Mars, the landing appears to have been harder than hoped. Meanwhile, orbit insertion for the ExoMars orbiter – TGO – apparently went well. ESA said in a statement today:

Early indications from both the radio signals captured by the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), an experimental telescope array located near Pune, India, and from orbit by ESA’s Mars Express, suggested the module had successfully completed most steps of its 6-minute descent through the martian atmosphere. This included the deceleration through the atmosphere, and the parachute and heat shield deployment, for example.

But the signals recorded by both Pune and Mars Express stopped shortly before the module was expected to touchdown on the surface …

The thrusters were confirmed to have been briefly activated although it seems likely that they switched off sooner than expected, at an altitude that is still to be determined.

Read more: ESA’s October 20 statement on ExoMars

You can continue to follow the mission via text updates from ESA.

Or follow on Twitter via the main ExoMars mission page or the ExoMars orbiter, or via the hashtag #ExoMars.

Yesterday was a tough day for space watchers. Word came that the Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting Jupiter since July, went into a safe mode, thereby turning off its instruments, just 13 hours before reaching perijove, its closest point to Jupiter, an event that happens only once every 53 days. Thus no data collection took place at perijove.

Then we waited for many hours on Wednesday for word of the health of the Schiaparelli lander, only to find … there was no word available on Wednesday. Now, this morning, it appears the lander came down hard. Too hard? Seems that way, but we’ll wait to see what ESA says.

It’s also been an incredible 24 hours to contemplate these robot craft in space. I loved imagining Schiaparelli and its mother ship TGO, barreling toward the Red Planet yesterday at 13,000 miles per hour (21,000 km/h). The animation below shows you the two crafts’ trajectory on their final approach, with Schiaparelli’s ultimate descent to the planet’s surface. Schiaparelli was supposed to use a heatshield, parachute and thrusters to brake to about 6 feet (2 meters) above Mars’ surface. At that point, a crushable structure on its underside was supposed to absorb the final shock. After it analyzes the available data, ESA should be able to tell us what actually happened.

Today, many are contemplating that landing on Mars is difficult. From the first successful landing (the mind-blowing Viking 1 in 1976) until today, there’ve been many successes and also many failures.

Check out this timeline of Mars landing successes and failures.

Also, this latest landing attempt underscores the reality that many eyes on Earth are turned toward Mars now. The ExoMars mission was launched from Earth in March, 2016, and took about six months to travel to Mars. In contrast, the vision of SpaceX’s Elon Musk’s – announced on September 27 – involves a three-month travel time to Mars. Musk said he envisions, ultimately, a self-sustaining, one-million-person civilization on Mars. And of course, NASA has plans to send humans to Mars, too.

So, regarding the question we tweeted yesterday – below – the answer is apparently no. Schiaparelli has apparently not become the 8th successful Mars landing. That might still change, as ESA continues to work on the problem. And, in any case, as ESA said in its statement this morning:

Schiaparelli’s primary role was to test European landing technologies. Recording the data during the descent was part of that, and it is important we can learn what happened, in order to prepare for the future.

Bottom line: The European Schiaparelli probe – part of the ExoMars mission – attempted to land on the Red Planet on Wednesday. It apparently came down harder than expected and apparently has not become the 8th successful Mars landing, but we’re still waiting for the final word from ESA.

October 20, 2016

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Deborah Byrd

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