NASA orbiter finds Schiaparelli lander — and it doesn’t look good

The NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has discovered the landing site of the ESA ExoMars mission’s Schiaparelli lander, which lost contact with ground control personnel moments before it was scheduled to touchdown on the surface of the Red Planet late Wednesday morning.

Schiaparelli entered the Martian atmosphere shortly before 11am EDT on Oct. 19, after which it was to begin a six-minute automated descent. However, ESA mission personnel never received a signal from the spacecraft confirming that it had successfully made its way to the surface.

On Thursday, ESA officials revealed that they would review data recorded by its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), to determine what might have happened during Schiaparelli’s descent, and on Friday, they revealed that the lander had been located thanks to images captured using the low-resolution CTX camera equipped on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

lander crash

This image comparison shows NASA’s view of the crash site.

The images were taken as the MRO was flying over the expected landing site in a plain located near the Martian equator informally known as Meridiani Planum as part of a planned campaign, the ESA explained in a statement. Taken in a resolution of 6 meters per pixel, they clearly show two new items that were not present in images captured back in May.

Investigation into the incident continues

One of the new features is believed to be the 12-meter parachute used during the second part of the lander’s descent, which would have been deployed following the initial heat shield portion of its entry. The chute should have been deployed just before the spacecraft’s thrusters slowed it to a near-standstill just meters above the surface during the final phase of the landing.

The second new feature, the ESA said, is a dark-colored fuzzy patch located about one kilometer north of the parachute. This 15 meter by 40 meter sized object is believed to have been caused by the impact of Schiaparelli itself, indicating that the lander’s planned freefall occurred at a higher-than-expected altitude, likely because the spacecraft’s thrusters prematurely stopped working.

“Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometers, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. The relatively large size of the feature would then arise from disturbed surface material. It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full,” the ESA explained.

However, they noted that the analysis was ongoing, and that updates would be provided as new information is found. The features will be re-examined next week using the HiRISE, the MRO’s higher resolution camera, and they hope that those observations will reveal the whereabouts of the lander’s heat shield, which was ejected from a higher altitude. ESA officials noted that they are “confident” that they will be able to reconstruct the events leading up to impact, and they still hope that they will find out exactly want went wrong with the lander in the first place.


Image credit: NASA