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ESA Lander Exploded on Impact, Says NASA -- How Will it Affect ExoMars Probe?

Oct 24, 2016 04:33 AM EDT

In probably the biggest letdown for the European Space Agency (ESA) this year, the unsuccessful landing of Schiaparelli "Life on Mars" lander from the ExoMars probe, the space agency still considers part of its mission a success. Recent updates claim that NASA found the crash site of the lander on the surface of Mars.

The historical touchdown of ESA's lander for its ExoMars probe did not materialize as the Earth-based control system lost its communication with Schiaparelli before touchdown. ESA's Schiaparelli lander separated from its mothership last week. The most crucial part of the landing is a six-minute window where the spacecraft will have to fire its thrusters to slow down its descent and, at the same time, activate its parachute. The spacecraft entered the orbit of the red planet on Oct. 19. NASA believes that the lander might have exploded upon impact.

Everything was going smoothly as planned, however, minutes before the expected touchdown, everything went silent. ESA engineers waited for the affirmative signal that the lander made contact with the Martian surface to no avail. Even the Indian telescope used to monitor the descent said that it lost track of the spacecraft minutes before touchdown.

Despite the unsuccessful landing, ESA and ExoMars engineers continuously work to find out what could have gone wrong in the procedure. NASA, on the other hand, seems to know more about the fate of ESA's lander. Based on the observations of NASA's Reconnaissance Orbiter, a possible crash site of Schiaparelli was spotted.

NASA's Reconnaissance Orbiter suggests that a "violent" collision occurred. In an image released by NASA, there was a visible spot that could potentially be Schiaparelli's crash site. Comparing the image taken on a much older date, the spot was not yet visible on the surface, increasing the possibility that it is indeed Schiaparelli's actual crash site.

"NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has identified new markings on the surface of the Red Planet that are believed to be related to ESA's ExoMars Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing technology demonstrator module," an ESA official said in a press release. The CTX camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took the images of the Meridiane Planum, showing the possible Schiaparelli crash site last Oct. 20.

With a full tank and high-speed descent, it is possible that the lander exploded upon impact, according to a report. But despite the unfortunate fate of Schiaparelli lander, the ExoMars probe will not go to waste since ESA's orbiter, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TRO) successfully swung in place and will continue to observe the red planet in orbit.


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