exomars landed
The Schiaparelli lander safe on Mars, in an artist's impression. ESA

Mars has apparently claimed another robotic explorer. Europe’s Schiaparelli Mars lander is most likely dead on arrival, after something went wrong during its parachute flight and its hover-rockets didn’t ignite for long enough.

European Space Agency engineers are still trying to piece together exactly what went wrong at some point during the lander’s descent yesterday. They know it successfully separated from its mothership and traveling companion, the Trace Gas Orbiter, over the weekend. They know it successfully entered Mars’s atmosphere Wednesday, plummeting toward the ground with its radar-tracking turned on. They know its heat shield protected the lander almost all the way down, and that it deployed its parachute. But after that, they don’t know what happened.

“From this point on, the lander has definitely not behaved exactly as we had expected,” Andrea Accomazzo, head of solar and planetary operations, said in a news conference early Thursday. “Now it is a matter to analyze why, when we put this hardware in the Martian environment, the spacecraft didn’t behave exactly as we had expected.”

The mission team is still not sure whether Schiaparelli survived intact, he added. It’s possible the lander was flying too fast. Its rockets only fired for three or four seconds, but they were supposed to ignite for 30 seconds.

“We are not in a position yet, but we will be, to determine the dynamic condition under which the lander touched the ground. Then we know whether it could have survived structurally or not,” Accomazzo said. “We are not in a position to say that now, because we don’t have any data. We are still processing the data from the descent. From the surface, we have no data at all.”

There is one piece of good news: Some of the instruments on board Schiaparelli were recording atmospheric data as it screamed through the Martian atmosphere, and scientists are eager to analyze it. Michel Denis, ExoMars flight director, said Schiaparelli recorded some 600 MB of data on its way down.


Schiaparelli Descent Stages

Here’s what was supposed to have happened. Something went wrong during the parachute sailing phase.

But it was supposed to do more work after it arrived, too. European and American Mars orbiters will try again today to hail Schiaparelli, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will try to take a picture of its landing area soon. The Opportunity rover is rolling along about 10 miles from the planned landing site, and it tried to take a picture of Schiaparelli’s entry, but it was unsuccessful, according to the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla.

Schiaparelli is part of a European-Russian multi-year effort called ExoMars, which aims to look for life on the fourth planet. The mission’s first goal was to inject the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars, and that went off without a hitch Wednesday. The second goal was to land a test craft with a small set of weather instruments. ESA managers stressed repeatedly that Schiaparelli was just a test and a way to acquire practical experience, and in that sense, it was successful.

But the news is still bleak. The entire point of Schiaparelli was to demonstrate that Europe has the technology to land on Mars, proving its mettle for a big Russian-European rover due to arrive in 2020. With the lander’s apparent failure, member countries — who will be asked to pony up another €300 million for the rover by the end of this year — may have big questions about the likelihood of success.

Responding to media questions about the mission’s future, ESA director Jan Woerner seemed to bristle at the suggestion member countries would want to back out or hedge their bets.

“I think they will see this mission is a success. We don’t have to convince them, we just have to show them,” he said. “We are really confident we have the right basis for successful European science on Mars, looking for life.”

The Trace Gas Orbiter is a big part of that goal, and ESA’s operations and outreach are focusing on its successful orbit entry and communications with Earth.

“Mars exploration is hard, and that’s one of the reasons we do it,” said Parker. “It’s hard, challenging and exciting. It pushes all our scientists and engineers to look to the future.”