Schiaparelli, the landing component of the ExoMars 2016 mission, malfunctioned about 50 seconds before its planned Wednesday touchdown on Mars and has not been heard from since, confirmed a panel of European Space Agency (ESA) representatives in a media briefing held Thursday morning.
"There is a point where the parachute is released where the data we have preliminarily analyzed from [Schiaparelli does] not match exactly our expectations," said Andrea Accomazzo, ESA spacecraft operations manager, during the briefing. "Following this phase, the lander has definitely not behaved exactly as we expected."
Full video of October 20 ESA press briefing. Video: European Space Agency
Here's what we know: Schiaparelli was in radio contact for most of its entry, descent, and landing (EDL) sequence. Its heat shields protected it from the searing temperatures of atmospheric entry, and the module deployed its supersonic parachutes without any discernable problem. The lander then radioed that it had ditched the front shield.
Schiaparelli signaled back to Earth that it had fired its retrorockets, but only for a period of a few seconds, Accomazzo confirmed. On top of that, the lander's data stream suggests its parachutes and back shield may have been jettisoned prematurely, followed by the communication blackout. It's unclear whether the retrorockets succeeded in guiding the lander down to a soft landing on the Martian surface.
When pressed by the BBC to speculate on the likelihood that Schiaparelli crashed or remains "in one piece," ESA director general Jan Wörner seemed visibly frustrated and answered: "We don't know."
Accomazzo elaborated by assuring reporters that he was "extremely confident" that further investigations of the data sent back from the lander, along with observations from Mars orbiters and Earth-based telescopes, would reveal what went wrong in those final nail-biting moments before touchdown.
"I have personally no doubts that we will be able to fully understand what has happened during this descent and to reconstruct maybe where Schiaparelli is, and in what condition it could be," Accomazzo said.
The panel members took great pains to highlight Wednesday's victories, especially the successful orbital insertion of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). David Parker, ESA director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, called the TGO "the cornerstone of the 2020 mission."
"I think we can say there's a lot to look forward to, there's a lot we have learned, and there's a lot we're going to learn in the science of exploration," he said.
Meanwhile, Accomazzo stressed that the first steps of Schiaparelli's EDL sequence "worked flawlessly" and provided a test platform for technologies that will be "fundamental for a successful landing on Mars."
These attempts to downplay the news that Schiaparelli seems to be lost, or perhaps even shattered by a crash landing, were met with pushback from reporters, who questioned whether its uncertain status would have repercussions for the follow-up ExoMars 2020 rover mission. Wörner denied that it would and reiterated that the lander was intended as a test demonstration of landing technologies. In that capacity, he emphasized, it was largely a success.
Schiaparelli was designed to be a stripped-down, short-lived module intended to prove that ESA and its partner Roscosmos could pull off a soft-landing on Mars. In retrospect, it appears that the two agencies were wise not to invest all of their funds and energies into one mission containing a more valuable payload.
As disappointing as it is to come so close to a perfect landing only to be foiled literally at the last minute, the mission leads point out that this is exactly why test platforms are helpful.
"From the engineering standpoint, it's what we want from a test, and we have extremely valuable data to work with," Parker said in an ESA statement. "We will have an enquiry board to dig deeper into the data and we cannot speculate further at this time."
It would be fantastic if the little lander, which ESA and Roscosmos hoped would be their first working surface module on Mars, woke up and said hello. It wouldn't be the first time ESA lost a probe to a bumpy landing, only to regain contact with it later. The ESA-built Philae lander, delivered to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko by the Rosetta orbiter in November 2014, suddenly woke up months after its botched touchdown. Perhaps another surprise win is in the cards.
If not, the focus will shift to the TGO, which is projected to operate in Mars orbit until at least 2022. The orbiter is searching for traces of atmospheric gases that might yield hints of microbial life on the surface, and will act as a communications waypoint for the ExoMars 2020 rover.
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