While a spacecraft designed to detect atmospheric gasses has successfully entered orbit around Mars, the status of a lander that it transported to the Red Planet remains unknown after officials with the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed that they had lost contact with it.
According to Space.com, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), one of the two vehicles that are part of the joint ESA-Russian ExoMars 2016 mission, successfully slipped into orbit around Mars late Wednesday morning after completing one final, critical engine burn. ExoMars Flight Operations Director Michel Denis later confirmed that it was “at the right place” and in “good” shape.
However, the fate of the Entry, Descent & Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), Schiaparelli, remains unknown this morning. Reports indicate that the spacecraft hit the Martian atmosphere shortly before 11am EDT on Wednesday morning, but ground control never received a signal to confirm that it had successfully made it to the surface.
Communication with the lander stopped shortly before it was supposed to complete a six-minute final decent, ESA mission operations department chief Paolo Ferri explained to Space.com. “It’s clear that these are not good signs,” he said, “but we will need more information,” adding that he was “confident” that the agency would find out what happened sometime on Thursday.
ESA officials could have up to 10 days to locate the lander
In a statement, the ESA said that Schiaparelli was programmed to perform an automated landing sequence following its release, including the deployment of a parachute and the release of a front heat shield once it reached a height of between seven and 11 km. Next, the lander was to slam on the brakes by firing its retrorockets once it reached 1100 m above the surface.
The landing sequence, which was to conclude with a free-fall from an altitude of two meters, was being monitored by the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope in India, the agency said. The GMRT lost contact with Schiaparelli at some point during the landing sequence, however. A subsequent attempt to locate the probe using the Mars Express orbiter proved inconclusive, the agency said.
ESA officials expect to learn more on Thursday, once they have time to hunt for signals from the lander using GMRT, Mars Express, and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probes, Space.com said. If the lander was able to make it to the surface safely, its batteries should last for at least three days and perhaps as long as 10 days, giving officials multiple opportunities to attempt to reestablish contact.
If Schiaparelli was able to land successfully, it would be the first ESA lander – and, in fact, the first from any non-NASA space agency – to do so. If it did not, then it would be the latest entry on a long list of failed attempts, which includes the ESA’s own Beagle 2, which touched down on the Red Planet’s surface in 2003 but failed to deploy its antenna and solar panels.
The TGO mission, which will not begin science operations until late next year due to a complex series of aerobraking maneuvers needed to correct its orbit, will be creating a detailed inventory of the various gasses in the Martian atmosphere. The Schiaparelli lander, if healthy, will monitor the planet’s weather, although it was mostly intended to demonstrate the technology that will be used on a future life-hunting mission to the Red Planet.
Image credit: ESA