ExoMars mission continues to thrive despite loss of lander

Despite the apparent loss of the Schiaparelli lander, the other half of the ExoMars 2016 mission, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), has successfully entered the Red Planet’s orbit and will continue to function as expected, officials from the European Space Agency (ESA) have confirmed.

According to Gizmodo and The Verge, ESA officials believe that the lander likely experienced a computer glitch during its descent which made it erroneously think it was closer to the surface of Mars than it actually was, disrupting the spacecraft’s landing sequence and causing it to crash.

Last week, the Schiaparelli’s remains were spotted by the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and as Nature World News noted, ESA officials believe that the lander fell from a height of between two and four kilometers, impacting at a speed of over 300 km/h and likely exploding on impact. However, the investigation into exactly what caused the incident continues.

As Andrea Accomazzo, head of solar and planetary missions for the ESA, explained, the cause can likely be traced back to a yet-unidentified glitch that gave the lander incorrect data about its position in space, causing landing procedures to execute as if it were at a much lower altitude.

“If confirmed, this would actually be good news, as software issues are much easier to correct than hardware problems,” Gizmodo said. “Researchers on the ExoMars team are confident in the integrity of Schiaparelli’s hardware, and they’re now hoping to replicate the software error using a simulation” so that they can design, implement and test a potential fix for the issue.

Orbiter ‘healthy,’ preparing to begin science operations next year

While much of the media attention regarding the ExoMars mission has involved Schiaparelli and its crash, ESA officials are quick to point out that the other spacecraft involved in the project, the TGO, has entered orbit around the Red Planet and is continuing to function as planned.

The orbiter is “looking well and healthy” and remains “well within the planned initial orbit,” said Nature World News. In March, it is scheduled to undergo a maneuver to correct its trajectory and bring it to a circular orbit at an altitude of 400 km (250 miles) above the Martian surface. Shortly thereafter, it will begin a two-year mission to identify and catalog atmospheric gases.

According to Chemical and Engineering News, TGO has been outfitted with spectrometers and cameras that it will use to trace nitrogen oxide, acetylene, and methane in the air surrounding the Red Planet. It will also be able to detect hydrogen, a potential indicator of water ice, at depths of up to one meter below the ground.

“Scientists are particularly interested in Mars’s production of methane,” the website said. This is because the majority of atmospheric methane on Earth is produced by microbial life, although it can also be produced by natural geological processes. A methane spike was detected by NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in 2014, and ESA scientists hope that the TGO will help determine the still-unknown source of those readings.


Image credit: ESA