Europe’s Mars Mission: Contact With ExoMars Schiaparelli Lost Less Than A Minute Before Touchdown

But the ExoMars team is optimistic that the capsule had collected enough data during its descent to set the stage for the next phase of the mission: the planned 2020 launch OFA life-hunting ExoMars rover

After a suspenseful night waiting for a signal from ExoMars Schiaparelli lander, the European Space Agency (ESA) confirmed on Friday that the spacecraft went silent just less than a minute before it was set to reach the Martian surface on Wednesday (October 19), Scientific American has reported.

On Thursday, ESA mission managers reportedly said they needed more time to understand what went wrong with Schiaparelli and to figure out exactly where and in what condition the test lander ended up. But the ExoMars team is optimistic that the capsule had collected enough data during its descent to set the stage for the next phase of the mission: the planned 2020 launch OFA life-hunting ExoMars rover.



Schiaparelli prepares for thermal tests. Credit: ESA – B. Bethge

Schiaparelli – an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module – is a technology demonstration vehicle carried by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). Schiaparelli and its mothership TGO were launched on 14 March, 2016, on a Proton rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Schiaparelli was supposed to land approximately 7 months later at Mars.

Schiaparelli was scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet on Wednesday. But the spacecraft’s handlers could not confirm a successful landing, and were left waiting for a signal. The TGO successfully entered the orbit around Mars.

Essential data from the ExoMars Schiaparelli lander sent to its mothership Trace Gas Orbiter during the module’s descent to the Red Planet’s surface on Wednesday has been downlinked to Earth and is currently being analysed by experts, an ESA statement said.

The first phases of the sequence went according to plan, Andrea Accomazzo, head of ESA’s solar and planetary missions, said at the news conference from ESA’s operations center in Darmstadt, Germany.

“The lander sailed through the upper layers of the Martian atmosphere as expected, and its supersonic parachute deployed on time—important indications that “the heat shield has worked flawlessly,” Accomazzo said. But the ejection of the back heat shield and parachute occurred earlier than planned, he added.

“Following this phase, the lander has definitely not behaved exactly as we expected,” Accomazzo said.

“The test has yielded a huge amount of data,” David Parker, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, reportedly said at a news conference.


Schiaparelli descent sequence. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

As to whether Schiaparelli is still in one piece, “It’s very difficult to say a likelihood now,” Accomazzo said.

“We are not in a position yet—but we will be—to determine the dynamic conditions with which the lander has touched the ground, and then we will know whether it could have survived structurally or not,” Accomazzo said. “We are still processing the data from the descent. From the surface, we have no data at all.”

He added that it might take some time for the team to locate the lander physically on the ground using imagery from an orbiter such as Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

To date, Nasa is the only space programme to have completed fully successful missions to Mars’ surface. The ExoMars team had hopes that their mission would be the first to pull off such a feat for Europe and Russia.

ExoMars is a joint mission by ESA and Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Though it had some science experiments on board, Schiaparelli was meant to survive for only a few days on Mars, and its main purpose was to test the landing system that’s intended to place a rover on the Red Planet as part of the second phase of the mission, ExoMars 2020.

“The very good news is that TGO is very successfully inserted into the orbit,” said Jan Wörner, ESA director general, in the Scientific American report. “That means that TGO is now ready for science and, at the same time, ready for data relay, which we need for the 2020 mission.”