Fears for Mars lander as sister ship successfully goes into orbit

Hopes were fading tonight for Europe’s first Mars lander since the UK’s ill-fated Beagle 2 after communication was lost around a minute before it was due to touch down.

Trace Gas Orbiter
Artist’s impression of ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars. Image credit: ESA–D. Ducros

The spacecraft had almost completed a six-minute dive into the Martian atmosphere when it fell silent. UK space scientists were anxiously waiting last night to find out if it had survived. But the sombre mood was eased by joy when its companion probe successfully went into orbit.

Technicians at mission control at Darmstadt, Germany looked concerned after a signal from the Schiaparelli probe suddenly disappeared. There were fears that instead of making a soft landing, the robotic probe might have crashed, or that something had damaged its antenna.

If so, it was a disappointing echo of the failure of the last European bid to land on Mars with the UK’s Beagle 2 which was lost on Christmas Day, 2003.

One UK scientist watching with particular concern was Dr Colin Wilson of Oxford University, who has an experiment on Schiaparelli to measure the speed and direction of the wind.

He lost an identical experiment on Beagle 2 when that landed but failed to open up successfully to phone home. Only seven probes – all American – have previously landed successfully on Mars.

As the flying-saucer-shaped Schiaparelli “woke up” and prepared to make its six-minute descent, a faint signal was picked up from the craft using a powerful radio telescope at Pune in India. This was actually a bonus, as it had not been expected to be heard directly, only via one of the spacecraft already orbiting Mars.

ESA’s Head of Mission Operations, Paolo Ferri, said: “We had a signal for a long time during the descent, but it was lost about a minute before the expected touchdown time.”

A European orbiter that has been circling Mars since 2003, Mars Express, radioed back later after recording Schiaparelli’s signal cutting out at the same moment, seemingly confirming a communications failure aboard the probe.

This diminished hopes that NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which would fly over the landing site a couple of hours later, might make contact with Schiaparelli.

Mission controllers were confident however that they will discover what happened by the morning. That is because companion ship Trace Gas Orbiter was programmed to collect telemetry from Schiaparelli for the whole of its descent via a separate aerial. Engineers will study this data closely through the night to determine what happened to the lander.

Replica of Schiaparelli
A replica of Schiaparelli at the ESA’s mission control in Darmstadt. Image credit: Paul Sutherland/Skymania

After a 496 million km (about 300 million mile) journey through space, the circular Schiaparelli made a dramatic plunge into Mars’s thin atmosphere at a speed of nearly 21,000 km/hour (13,000 mph), its descent slowed by a supersonic parachute.

As the lander, which is also known as the Entry, descent, and landing Demonstrator Module, was preparing to land, the Trace Gas Orbiter began to circle Mars. It burned its main engine for 139 minutes to slow down and get captured into orbit around Mars. The two craft had separated on 16 October.

There were huge cheers as the orbiter came round the back of Mars and called home to confirm it was safely in orbit. The ship is considered the major part of the ExoMars package as it will operate for years to come, unlike Schiaparelli which was a landing test designed to operate only a few days.

TGO’s mission is to sniff out the rarer gases in the Martian atmosphere, which is mainly carbon dioxide. In particular, scientists want to check the levels of methane because it could indicate the presence of life.

Dr Manish Patel, of the Open University, has an instrument that will try to detect the methane.

Hiding his disappointment, Dr Wilson told Skymania: “Remember that ExoMars is a four-course meal. The lander today is just the starter, a taster for what’s to come.

“The orbiter will last for many years and it is fitted with a very good Swiss camera which will take high-resolution pictures of the surface.

“Then in four years time, we’re going to have the Rover, as well as a Russian stationary payload, on the surface, both of which will last for a long time, and both of which are equipped with cameras.”

Of the fears for Mars lander Schiaparelli, Dr Wilson said: “Sadly a parachute cannot save you on Mars because the air is so thin. That’s why they needed the thrusters to land it.

“Right now the engineers will be working hard to test every possibility for what might have happened to Schiaparelli, in a bid to recover it.

“And they will be transmitting signals blind to try to get it to ignore its schedule and to make contact.”

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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