European Space Agency (ESA) officials have hailed the ExoMars Mission as a “huge success” despite its lander Schiaparelli going missing.
The ESA, in a joint venture with Russian space agency Roscosmos, lost touch with the lander in the final stages of its descent to the surface of Mars early Thursday morning (AEST time).
One half of a two-part survey mission that was supposed to touch down on Mars after separating from the circling Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) module, the half-tone lander failed to radio home after making the 121km descent to the planet’s surface.
Without data detailing its final moments to touchdown, ESA mission controllers can only speculate that Schiaparelli malfunctioned and may now be lost.
What went wrong?
The operation to land Schiaparelli on Mars is much harder than it appears in black and white.
After its launch in March, 2016, the TGO made a seven-month journey through space, reaching Mars’ orbit around mid-October.
Once the TGO attained orbit and reported back that all systems were operational and ready to go, the half-tonne lander was released to begin a 121km controlled descent to the surface in just under six minutes.
Travelling at 21,000 km/h, Schiaparelli used the denser atmosphere of Mars to slow to around 1700 km/h in just over two minutes.
During this time, the lander and its extremely delicate instruments are protected by the intense heat of entry by an aerodynamic heat shield.
A parachute was then released to further slow the lander’s speed to 320km/h, at which time the heat shield was jettisoned and Schiaparelli’s radar activated, in order to determine its location and landing site.
As the lander slowed to 240km/h, Schiaparelli was ejected into the atmosphere, where its liquid propulsion thrusters fired to slow its speed for final approach. At two metres above the ground, the thrusters would stop and Schiaparelli would drop to the surface.
It was at this point that Schiaparelli ceased communication with ESA.
The head of operations at European Space Operations Centre, the venture monitoring the mission, Paolo Ferri said, “It’s clear this is not a good sign… [however,] we should remember this landing was a test, and as part of the test you want to know what happened.”
Red planet hopes not dashed
The setback, which comes after years of planning and several months journey through space, marks another failure in ESA’s Mars exploration history.
The space agency launched another mission to the red planet in 2003, Beagle 2, but that mission was also scuppered after radio contact with the lander was lost after it hit the surface.
It was hoped that the ExoMars Mission would gather valuable data about potential life on Mars over five years, with Schiaparelli scouring the surface for trace gases – a signature of life – and the TGO surveying from above to pinpoint the location of gas omissions from the surface.
ESA and Roscosmos would then contribute ExoMars Mission data to the wider space exploration community, to form part of growing plans aimed at landing humans on the planet in the next 10 to 20 years.
Both NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX agency have announced plans to send humans to Mars in the hopes of starting a colony on the planet, with the pioneering Musk’s timeline understandably more ambitious than NASA’s government-funded program.
At this point, all hope is not completely lost.
There is a chance that a malfunction occurred in Schiaparelli’s radio systems only, and the lander is now settled safely on Mars.
But it will take mission controllers some time to sift through the data from the lander’s descent to determine exactly what happened.
Until then, even without the ability to communicate with the TGO, the ExoMars Mission will begin still be able to complete surveys from Mars orbit, a process that will begin in March 2018.
You can watch video of the second part of the operation on the ESA livestream site here.