Schiaparelli goes dark: ‘Everything worked as planned up to a certain point’

20 Oct 2016

Schiaparelli with parachute deployed. Image: ESA/ATG medialab

The ExoMars mission appears to have been a partial success with no response heard from the Schiaparelli lander, but the ESA has said that its possible failure provides valuable information for future missions.

The Schiaparelli lander began its descent at 3.42pm IST yesterday (19 October), but during the so-called “six minutes of terror” between it entering the atmosphere and landing on Mars, something went wrong.

Based on the data obtained by the European Space Agency (ESA), everything appeared to be going well for the craft – but several hours after its supposed landing, Schiaparelli remained silent.

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Not a good sign

“It’s clear that these are not good signs,” said the ESA’s head of operations, Paolo Ferri, on Wednesday.

If the craft has indeed gone dark forever, there will be some consolation in the fact that the lander portion of the overall ExoMars mission was less than that of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which will remain in the planet’s orbit, monitoring signs for methane.

The hope is that by detecting trace quantities of methane in the atmosphere, we could find evidence that the Red Planet harboured life at some stage millions of years ago.

As for the lander, its mission was to last only a few days due to its short battery life, and was largely a rehearsal ahead of the larger 2020 Mars rover mission that the ESA is conducting with Russia’s Roscosmos.

Speaking to the media this morning, the ESA’s head of planetary missions at the European Space Operations Centre, Andrea Accomazzo, described it as a successful mission – regardless of whether we hear back from Schiaparelli or not.

“We already see that everything worked as planned up to a certain point,” he said, before going on to clarify that the ESA is “extremely confident that we’ll be able to fully understand what happened to Schiaparelli”.

From a scientific perspective, there appears to be some confusion surrounding the data obtained from the TGO and Schiaparelli, but the ESA has received all the lander’s information, including from its Amelia instrument.

In determining where the ESA goes from here, Accomazzo has said that while they cannot determine what exactly happened the craft 50 seconds prior to its planned landing time, the ESA will team up with NASA to hopefully photograph the lander site in the coming days using orbiting spacecraft.

At the time of writing, ESA scientists are now trying to decode the data it obtained from both the TGO and Schiaparelli.

“My gut feeling is we will understand what happened”, Accomazzo said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic