Did a Calculation Glitch Cause the Demise of ESA Mars Lander Schiaparelli?
Despite looking at ESA lander crash in a positive light, it is a difficult lesson for the agency that is supposed to test a landing mechanism through the Schiaparelli lander but, unfortunately, has crashed on the surface of Mars.
Recent images from NASA suggest that the lander exploded during a crash. Last week, during its six-minute landing maneuver, controllers from the bases on Earth lost contact with the lander. Everything was going smoothly from the time the lander detached from the mothership to its three-day descent until the moment the lander was expected to fire up its thrusters to slow down its descent.
Due to NASA's images, scientists had an idea as to what happened to the lander. Old and new images of the Martian surface were compared where a new spot can be seen, suggesting that ESA's Schiaparelli lander crashed to its death in an unsuccessful landing attempt last Oct. 19. Schiaparelli is part of the European Space Agency's (ESA) ExoMars mission. It's a joint mission with Russia that aims to conduct a pre-landing test before the bigger 2020 mission on the red planet. The 2020 mission will drill a hole into the surface of Mars and will try to hunt for alien life on the red planet.
But despite the failed Schiaparelli descent and its doomed fate, scientists and engineers are still trying to extract new knowledge from the incident because figuring out what was wrong in the procedure will be helpful for the 2020 mission and other future missions to Mars. "That's super important. I think it's on everybody's mind," Jorge Vago, ExoMars project scientist said in a statement.
Many believe that Schiaparelli exploded during landing. Compared to its predecessor, Beagle 2, it appears that Schiaparelli managed to start the descent maneuver and even sent some messages to its mothership. Scientists think that the lander also activated its thrusters and landing system before the mishap occurred. However, four minutes into the six-minute landing window, something went wrong that caused ESA to lose its Schiaparelli lander.
The instruments might have been turned on and that the lander was ready for the Martian weather and magnetic field. However, the problem could have ignited from switching the gears way earlier or in a way higher altitude than it should. "My guess is that at that point we were still too high. And the most likely scenario is that, from then, we just dropped to the surface," Vago added in the interview.
If that's the case, the miscalculation could have caused the demise of the lander. But it is not foolproof yet as scientists and engineers are still working to find answers about Schiaparelli's crash.
The spacecraft could have fallen from two to four kilometers based on the images taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Experts say a calculation glitch and a software flaw are few of the possible causes of Schiaparelli's crash.