Update: One Win, One Big Maybe For Europe’s Mars Mission

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

Updated 3:30 p.m. Eastern time: The European Space Agency is trying to confirm contact with its lander, which entered the Martian atmosphere earlier today. The 1,272-lb lander separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter on Oct. 16 and separately made its way to the Red Planet. Schiaparelli deployed its parachute and it was supposed to release its heat shield about 4 miles above the Martian surface.

Then it was supposed to fire retrorockets starting at 3,600 feet in altitude, slowly descending Marsward. The sky crane-like rockets were to shut off just six feet off the ground, and Schiaparelli was supposed to fall onto its crushable bottom.

But not everything went according to plan, ESA says in a press release.

If it did land and it’s safe, Schiaparelli will only survive another few days. It’s equipped with weather and dust monitoring stations, which will help scientists understand the Martian atmosphere and how dust storms can form. Read more about what it’s supposed to do here.

Updated 2:45 p.m. Eastern time: The prognosis is not good for the ExoMars mission’s Schiaparelli lander, which has still not communicated with Earth after its planned arrival on Mars earlier today. In a brief announcement at the European Space Agency’s German headquarters, officials said they are still not sure what happened to Schiaparelli. On the other hand, they’ve confirmed the Trace Gas Orbiter, which traveled to Mars with the lander, is safely in orbit around the Red Planet.

“To fly to Mars is a very big challenge, and to be in the orbit of Mars, in a safe orbit, is a very big challenge,” said Jan Woerner, director of ESA. “It is a big success for ESA.”

But the possible loss of the lander is a setback, to be sure.

Paolo Ferri, who leads the Schiaparelli team, said the team was receiving data from the lander as it entered Mars’ atmosphere, but experienced a radio blackout during the heat of entry, and again when its parachute deployed.

“The signal went through the majority of the descent phase, but it stopped at a certain point that we reckon was before the landing,” he said. “It’s clear that these are not good signs, but we need more information.”

Three separate Mars orbiters are looking and listening for communication from the lander. ESA’s veteran Mars Express orbiter recorded telemetry, but it is so far inconclusive. Space News Paris correspondent Peter B. de Selding reported on Twitter that India’s Giant Metrewave Telescope and Mars Express orbiter both watched the descent, but both stopped recording data at the same time. NASA’s trusty Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is also taking a look.

Even NASA’s MAVEN mission is getting in on the action, ESA said in a press release.

And now that TGO is in orbit, it will try to help, too, Ferri said.

“We reckon we have on board more than 20 megabytes of data,” he said. “This is fundamental. This landing was a test, and as part of the test you want to know what happened. … Even if it stops at a certain point, you want to learn what stopped it.”

Mission managers plan to work overnight in Europe to find out what happened to Schiaparelli, Ferri said. They plan to announce details at a press conference tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. central European summer time, 4 a.m. Eastern.

Woerner also stressed that Schiaparelli was a test, and its entire mission was to prove that Europe has the technology to land a European-Russian rover on Mars in 2020. If the test module crashed, that’s not exactly great news — but data from the descent will help European scientists and engineers learn what happened, and how to make changes.

It is quite a disappointment for the many scientists who were eager for weather and dust measurements on Mars, too.

ESA officials were careful not to write Schiaparelli’s obituary just yet, but they stressed that it was just a test from the beginning.

“This was and is a test instrument about landing. And yes, it worked, but we don’t know all the details,” Woerner said. “We did this in order to get data about how to land with European technology on Mars.”

There’s a chance NASA robots will be able to provide more insight today, so stay tuned for further updates.

Updated 1:20 p.m. Eastern time: No news, in this case, is not good news. Right now the European Space Agency says descent data on its Schiaparelli lander is “inconclusive,” and we’re waiting for a NASA orbiter to fly overhead and take a peek.

The ExoMars lander relayed news that it survived atmospheric entry and its parachute deployed, but after that, we don’t know what happened. It relayed some information to ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, which initially sounded promising — managers said the recording was the right size for it to include useful data. But now it seems like there isn’t much there.

All is still not lost, not quite. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is flying overhead soon, and will try to contact the lander and relay data back to Earth. At the very least, we might be able to figure out what happened to it, and whether it landed safely.

Updated 12:45 p.m. Eastern time: Mars has one new companion, but we’re still awaiting word if it has another lander, too. The European Space Agency received a signal from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a new spacecraft designed to sniff for Martian methane and serve as a much-needed spacecraft relay. Getting into orbit around another planet is really difficult, so this is good news for ESA and the larger space community.

But meanwhile, Mars might have claimed another robot. We still need confirmation of the Schiaparelli Mars lander’s status on the Red Planet. The Mars Express and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter should be able to tell us, but it will be another hour or so before they can pass overhead and beam data back to Earth.

On the way down, Schiaparelli reported that it had survived atmospheric entry and that its parachute had opened. Mission controllers received signals through a radio telescope array near Pune, India. But we never heard confirmation that it landed safely. The lander is a demonstration aimed at proving Europe has the technology to land a robot on Mars. So if it crashed or lost its communications capability, that is … not great.

The European Space Agency webcast was stone-cold silent for several minutes, until a flight director quietly said, “We expected the signal to continue, but clearly it did not. We don’t want to jump to conclusions.”

All is not lost, at least not yet: The Mars orbiters are usually the best way to relay news from the lander, because they have much more powerful antennas. Europe’s Mars Express orbiter is taking a look when it swings around the planet within the next hour, so we should get some news then.