(CN) - The smooth descent engineers of the European Union's Schiaparelli spacecraft programmed may have ended in an abrupt, explosive crash landing on Mars' surface.
Schiaparelli, a Mars lander designed to test and attempt a landing on the Red Planet, stopped transmitting a signal to Earth moments before crashing late Wednesday. Now, images released by NASA show the possible crash site.
Engineers at the European Space Agency estimate that Schiaparelli's unmitigated descent began 1.25 — 2.5 miles above Mars' surface, leading to the spacecraft landing at a speed of about 185 mph.
The agency said Friday that the spacecraft's rapid fall may have also resulted in an explosion, though analysis is still ongoing.
"It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were still full," the agency said.
The NASA images, taken Oct. 20, show two distinct changes to the Martian landscape which weren't seen in an image from May 5. The new images show a dark blotch and a white speck, which are assumed to be Schiaparelli's parachute and its crash site.
"The parachute and the associated back shield were released from Schiaparelli prior to the final phase, during which its nine thrusters should have slowed it to a standstill just above the surface," the ESA said.
The crash landing followed a smooth approach by the lander after being deployed by its mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter, which lost contact with the probe moments before touchdown. The mission was widely watched on Wednesday.
Schiaparelli broached the Martian atmosphere without combusting and deployed its parachute as planned. However, the final phase went off script after its nine thrusters turned off too early to allow for an easy, controlled landing.
"Since the module's descent trajectory was observed from three different locations, the teams are confident that they will be able to reconstruct the chain of events with great accuracy," the ESA said. "The exact mode of anomaly onboard Schiaparelli is still under investigation."
Further analysis will include reviewing images from the HiRISE, a high-resolution camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a multipurpose spacecraft operated by NASA that is assisting in efforts to explore Mars.
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