(CN) – The European Space Agency on Thursday confirmed the loss of Schiaparelli, a spacecraft that was expected to land on Mars on Wednesday.
Scientists with the agency said the spacecraft stopped transmitting about 50 seconds before the expected landing. They said something went wrong when the parachute was jettisoned.
“The ejection itself appears to have occurred earlier than expected, but analysis is not yet complete,” the ESA said in a statement.
ESA director general Jan Worner said Schiaparelli’s primary role was to test whether the agency could successfully land a probe on Mars.
“Recording the data during the descent was part of that, and it is important we can learn what happened in order to prepare for the future,” Worner said.
The 1,272-pound lander was equipped with nine thrusters that were programmed to fire for the last 30 seconds of the descent to limit impact force. While the ESA confirmed they were briefly activated, officials believe they switched off earlier than expected.
Scientists were uncertain of Schiaparelli’s fate after they stopped receiving a carrier signal from the spacecraft, which led to anxiety as engineers had to wait until Thursday morning to analyze data downlinked from the ESA’s Mars Express satellite.
The mission was part of a joint venture between the Russian state corporation Roscosmos and ESA’s ExoMars program. The ESA will begin its larger mission, the ExoMars rover project, in 2020, which aims to land a European rover and a Russian surface platform on the Martian surface.
The rover will travel across Mars, searching for signs of life and collecting samples with a drill. The samples will be analyzed with next-generation instruments in what the agency says “will be the first mission to combine the capability to move across the surface and to study Mars at depth.”
The crash of Schiaparelli marked a bitter end to what had otherwise been a picture-perfect mission to Mars. After spending seven months traveling to the Red Planet, Schiaparelli’s mother ship braked into orbit with a 139-minute-long rocket firing to slow the spacecraft enough for Mars’ gravity to carry it in.
Schiaparelli – named for 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who dedicated his life to mapping and naming Mars’ features based on his telescopic observations – reached Mars’ atmosphere at an altitude of about 75 miles, traveling at some 13,000 mph, at 10:42 a.m. EDT.
The carrier signal transmitted to Earth confirmed atmospheric entry at 9 minutes and 47 seconds later. The lander used a heat-resistance shield to survive the fiery heat created by entry before quickly decelerating to a speed of about 1,000 mph.
Under a mile away from the surface, and descending at 155 mph, Schiaparelli’s programming then prompted the lander to cut away the parachute and detach its rear aeroshell, enabling it to descend at a safe rate. Analysis of the lander’s carrier signal suggests both events took place as expected.
Directly before touchdown, at an altitude of about 6.5 feet, its engines were programmed to shut down and Schiaparelli was supposed to drop the rest of the way, cushioned by a crushable structure.
The planned landing site was Meridiani Planum, near the equator.
Photo: ESA/ATG medialab
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