NASA orbiter captures Schiaparelli’s high-speed impact

A NASA spacecraft circling Mars has photographed wreckage of Europe’s Schiaparelli lander, confirming that it crashed on the Red Planet.

Schiaparelli crash site
An annotated image taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on 20 October shows new markings produced by Schiaparelli. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

An image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows two new markings on a patch with in the equatorial region called Meridiani Planum.

A new, big black patch in the ground is being identified with the European Space Agency’s crashed lander, and suggested that it exploded on impact after free-falling at around 200 mph for up to three miles.

Nine thruster engines which were supposed to slow the descent fired for too short a time. There would therefore still have been a lot to fuel in their tanks which blew up when it hit the surface at high speed.

Earlier MRO image
An earlier image of the same region taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter without the new markings. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Another lighter marking is thought to be the doomed craft’s supersonic parachute which it is thought also failed when it was detached earlier than planned during the six minutes of landing.

The pictures, released last night, were taken on Thursday, the day after Schiaparelli, part of the European ExoMars project, made its attempt to land.

The NASA orbiter has a higher-resolution camera, called HiRISE, which will attempt to take more detailed images of the crash site next week. It was the same camera that finally located the UK’s lost Beagle 2 probe on Mars two years ago, 11 years after it landed.

Engineers at mission control are studying a mass of data from Schiaparelli’s mother ship, Trace Gas Orbiter, which successfully arrived at Mars and monitored the lander’s entire descent.

Data was also collected by ESA’s Mars Express orbiter and a radio telescope array at Pune, India. ESA is confident that the three sources will allow them to determine the chain of events that doomed Schiaparelli with great accuracy.

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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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