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ESA: European 'Life on Mars' Probe Lander Feared Lost During Descent on the Red Planet

Oct 20, 2016 05:16 AM EDT
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ExoMars mission to try and discover life on Mars to land on 19 October

Europe could have made a historical milestone by landing Schiaparelli into the surface of Mars, but the fate of the 'Life on Mars' lander remains to be seen since the control center and its orbiter lost track of the spacecraft seconds before its estimated touchdown on the surface of Mars.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) lander, Schiaparelli survived a seven-month journey to Mars. Since the beginning, ESA has already announced that the six-minute window to land Schiaparelli on the surface of Mars is the most crucial part of the mission. Three days ago, the spacecraft detached from its lander and begun its descent to the red planet. The spacecraft is in a high-speed descent at 21,000 kilometers per hour. This touchdown was expectedly tricky and difficult because Schiaparelli will have to activate its thrusters, minutes before touchdown to slow it down and enable a smooth landing. But reports say the landing was going smoothly until the control base lost contact with the lander. So whether or not the lander made it in one peace still remains a mystery.

The perfect approach was barred by the last minute glitch. Controllers are already waiting for an affirmative message that the lander already made contact with the Martian surface when suddenly everything went silent.

"Those signals stopped at a certain point which we reckon was before the landing," Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations said in a statement. "It's clear this is not a good sign," Ferri added.

Within the six-minute descent window, the lander is supposed to release its parachute and activate its thrusters, a preprogrammed setting. The descent was operating smoothly until the signal was lost, according to the observation of the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope in India.

But despite the uncertain future of the alien life hunting lander on Mars, engineers and scientists at ESA still consider part of the mission a success as the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) was successfully caught up in an elliptical orbit around Mars and will perform its observations from there. With TGO in place, the mission did not go to waste.

Experts say the TGO is even more valuable compared to the lander Schiaparelli due to the fact that is capable of observing the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere, a gas vital in ESA's search for life. Methane is also considered to be directly linked to the presence of organisms and thus plays a significant part in the hunt for life.

"If there is life in our solar system beyond Earth, then Mars is the most interesting planet," Director General Jan Woerner at ESA Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany said in an interview with Reuters.

Despite the glitch that caused the unexpected Schiaparelli landing trouble, engineers and scientists at ESA said they will do their best to find out what happened the lander.

 

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