Europe’s second attempt at reaching the Mars surface appeared in peril Thursday as initial analysis suggested a lander dubbed “Schiaparelli”, a test-run for a future rover, may have plummeted to its demise.
While holding out faint hope, ground controllers said it seemed the paddling pool-sized lander’s parachute may have been discarded too early, and its fall-breaking thrusters switched off too soon.
Schiaparelli fell silent seconds before its scheduled touchdown, while its mothership Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) entered Mars’ orbit as planned — part of a joint European-Russian quest for evidence of life on the Red Planet, past or present.
“We are not in a position yet to determine the dynamic condition at which the lander touched the ground,” European Space Agency (ESA) head of solar and planetary missions Andrea Accomazzo told a webcast press briefing at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.
Further analysis must be done of some 600 megabytes of data Schiaparelli sent home before its signal died, to “know whether it survived structurally or not.”
If not, this would be Europe’s second failed Mars landing in a row, joining a string of unsuccessful attempts by global powers to explore our planetary neighbour’s hostile surface.
The British-built Beagle 2 robot lab disappeared without trace after separating from its mothership, Mars Express, in 2003. Its remains were finally spotted in a NASA photograph last year.
Schiaparelli had travelled for seven years and 496 million kilometres (308 million miles) onboard the TGO to within a million kilometres of Mars on Sunday, when it set off on its own mission to reach the surface.
The pair comprise phase one of the ExoMars mission through which Europe and Russia seek to join the United States in probing the alien Martian surface.
The TGO is meant to sniff atmospheric gases potentially excreted by living organisms, while Schiaparelli’s landing was designed to inform technology for a bigger and more expensive rover scheduled for launch in 2020.
The six-wheel rover will be equipped with a drill to look for remains of past life, or evidence of current activity, up to a depth of two metres.
While life is unlikely to exist on the barren, radiation-blasted surface, scientists say traces of methane in Mars’ atmosphere may indicate something is stirring underground — possibly single-celled microbes.