On Wednesday 19th October the world watched with bated breath as the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli (pronounced skap-a-RELL-ee) lander left its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, and began its descent towards the surface of Mars. The lander is named after the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who observed and named many of the features of the Martian landscape in the 19th century; there’s also a crater near the Martian equator named after him.
For the first five and a half minutes the lander’s descent was perfect. At 11 kilometres above the planet’s surface and travelling at 1700 kilometres per hour, the Schiaparelli’s parachute deployed as expected, slowing the craft to 240 kilometres per hour. Its radar switched on to aid it in its descent, but then things began to go wrong. The parachute was released 30 seconds early, which by itself would not have been a major problem as the craft had already slowed enough that it was merely in freefall. But then the thrusters, which were supposed to fire for 30 seconds and bring the lander to a gentle stop on the surface of Mars, only fired for 3 or 4 seconds before switching off. This would not have slowed the Schiaparelli by very much, meaning that it’s likely to have hit the ground at around 200 kilometres per hour.
This is a blow to the scientists at ESA, who had hoped that this would be the first non-American craft to safely land on the surface of Mars. The previous attempt, a craft named the Beagle 2 and built by a team of British scientists, disappeared during its descent in 2003 and was only discovered in early 2015. However the data from the Schiaparelli was received by both ESA’s Mars Express orbiter and by the GMRT telescope array near Pune, India, and this means that ESA has a wealth of data about the descent to examine. This may help them work out what went wrong, which is crucial as the 2020 ExoMars rover mission is designed to use a lot of the same technology and instruments. In addition to this, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is examining the projected landing site to see whether they can locate the lost lander and add to ESA’s data.
Featured image: Schiaparelli with parachute deployed. (Image: ESA).