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ESA ExoMars Mission Continues Despite Schiaparelli Lander Crash on Red Planet

Oct 24, 2016 05:26 AM EDT
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This is what it's like to spend eight months on Mars

Despite the apparent failure of the Schiaparelli lander, the ExoMars 2016 mission is still rolling, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.

According to ESA officials, the Schiaparelli lander might have released the parachute and rear heat shield too soon as it streaked down the atmosphere of the Red Planet on its scheduled landing Wednesday, Oct. 19. The lander fell silent shortly before its scheduled touchdown, but its mothership--the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) -- entered the orbit of Mars as planned.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has captured images of markings on the expected touchdown site of the Schiaparelli lander, which was suspected to be the remains of the spacecraft. ESA officials estimated that the lander dropped from a height of between 2 to 4 kilometers, impacting at a speed of more than 300 km/h. Officials also suspected the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were still possibly full. The ExoMars team is still working to reconstruct an accurate chain of events and identify the source of the anomaly.

At the moment, officials said that the ExoMars team continues to decode the data extracted from the recording of the lander's descent signals recorded by the TGO in order to establish correlations with the measurements made with the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), which is an experimental telescope array located near Pune in India and with ESA's Mars Express from orbit. According to the team, a "substantial amount of extremely valuable" Schiaparelli engineering data were relayed back to the TGO during the descent is being analyzed by ESA engineers.

Despite the Schiaparelli's ill-fated landing, TGO is still looking well and healthy, and is currently well within the planned initial orbit, ESA said in the same statement. The orbiter will then be ready for the planned maneuver in March 2017, which will bring the vehicle into a 400-km (250 miles) altitude circular orbit around Mars. From then, TGO will begin its two-year science mission: to study Mars' gases.

"Following yesterday's events we have an impressive orbiter around Mars ready for science and for relay support for the ExoMars rover mission in 2020," Jan Wörner, ESA's Director General, said in a statement. "Schiaparelli's primary role was to test European landing technologies. Recording the data during the descent was part of that, and it is important we can learn what happened, in order to prepare for the future."

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