The ExoMars Schiaparelli lander, which was slated to touch down on Mars on Wednesday, crashed on the planet after its thrusters shut off prematurely, the European Space Agency confirmed Friday. And because Schiaparelli still had fuel left in its tank, the craft may have exploded on impact.
The nine thrusters on the small spacecraft were supposed to slow its descent through the Martian atmosphere, which is so thin that objects move through it at perilously high speeds.
Images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show two new features on the surface of the planet that could be evidence of the crash. At the bottom of one close-up image, a bright white spot is thought to be the parachute used during Schiaparelli’s descent. Data suggests that parachute and the spacecraft’s heat shield were successfully deployed and discarded before the final phase of the landing. A dark patch, roughly 50-by-130 meters in area and little over half a mile north of the parachute, looks like material that was blown up when Schiaparelli hit the ground.
The lander, part of the joint ExoMars astrobiology mission of the ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency, would have been the first operable spacecraft from either agency to successfully touch down on the Martian surface.
Schiaparelli hadn't been heard from since just before its planned landing, and by Thursday morning most scientists at ESA mission control feared the worst. The crash has overshadowed the successful orbital insertion of Schiaparelli's parent spacecraft, the Trace Gas Orbiter, which will circle the planet looking for methane for the next six years.
Data from the orbiter is being analyzed to understand why the lander failed to achieve a soft landing. The ESA estimates that Schiaparelli began its free fall at a mile or two above the surface and was traveling more than 180 miles per hour when it hit the ground.
The agency still doesn't know why the thrusters shut off prematurely.
Determined to put a positive spin on things, ESA officials have repeatedly emphasized that Schiaparelli was designed as a test lander. It carried few scientific instruments and was only intended to last a few days on Mars. Its main objective was to test technologies such as the heat shield, parachute, radar and thrusters — which, one could argue it did, even though some of the technologies failed.
“We got the data, we did the test, so I am very happy,” ESA director Jan Woerner said at a news conference Thursday.
Even so, scientists and space enthusiasts are probably going to be pouring one out for Schiaparelli tonight.