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ESA Lost Contact of ExoMars Schiaparelli Before Mars Touchdown -- Did the Lander Make It?

Oct 20, 2016 11:32 AM EDT
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This is what it's like to spend eight months on Mars

There's been a lot of suspense surrounding ExoMars Schiaparelli's touchdown on Mars' surface. The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced today that they lost contact with the spacecraft one minute before its touchdown to the red planet's surface.

According to Space.com, ESA has confirmed that the Mars lander went silent after it reached Mars on Oct. 19. Mission managers from the space agency are still figuring out what happened and if the ExoMars Schiaparelli lander is still in working condition.

Reuters notes that the Mars lander was supposed to collect data on the red planet by drilling its surface and analyzing physical samples.

The spacecraft was supposed to land on Mars at 10:48 a.m. EDT on Wednesday. The plan was for Schiaparelli to have a six-minute landing sequence, which involves the spacecraft to halt from about 21,000 kilometers per hour. However, the lander went silent one minute before it touched Mars' surface, and scientists are left waiting for a signal.

"We need to understand what happened in the last few seconds before the planned landing," said David Parker, ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration.

Meanwhile, Andrea Accomazzo, head of ESA' s solar planetary mission, said that everything went according to plan. The lander has sailed through the upper layers of Mars and has made all the planned protocols including the deployment of its supersonic parachute, except for one thing: the ejection of the back heat shield and parachute that went off earlier than expected.

"Following this phase, the lander has definitely not behaved exactly as we expected," Accomazo 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. We are still processing the data from the descent. From the surface, we have no data at all."

Meanwhile, despite awaiting communication from the capsule, the ExoMars team still believes that the Schiaparelli has collected a rich trove of data from its journey, which would prove useful in future journeys of ExoMars to hunt for life.

"The test has yielded a huge amount of data. It gives us a lot of confidence for the future. We need to understand what happened in the last few seconds before the planned landing, and that is likely to take some time," said Parker.

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