Schiaparelli crashed on Mars – but ESA declare the mission a success

Europe’s latest Mars lander Schiaparelli crashed after its thrusters failed to fire for long enough to slow its descent, the mission team believe. Its parachute may also have been cast off too early.

An impression of Schiaparelli with its parachute deployed.
An impression of Schiaparelli with its parachute deployed. All was going well at this stage. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Nothing has been heard from the craft since it was due to touch down on Wednesday. But all the evidence suggests it hit the ground too fast.

However, Schiaparelli’s mother ship, which went into orbit around Mars as planned, collected telemetry data from the lander throughout its descent.

Engineers at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, spent the night poring over 600 megabytes of data downloaded from Trace Gas Orbiter.

Spacecraft operations manager Andrea Accomazzo said: “We collected all the engineering data during this phase. That is the most important thing.”

He said all went well at first when Schiaparelli entered the Martian atmosphere. It travelled through the upper layers of the atmosphere, and deployed its supersonic parachute just as planned.

The heat shield protecting it also worked flawlessly and ground radar was providing data.

But, he said, the parachute flight performed well up to final stage. Then it may have been ejected too soon before the probe fired its descent thrusters – three sets of three retro rockets.

He said: “Data does not match our expectations. The lander did not behave exactly as expected.”

Schiaparelli's thrusters
How Schiaparelli’s three sets of thrusters were supposed to fire. It appears they cut out too soon. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Mr Accomazzo said the data would take some time to analyse. But he said that the thrusters fired “for three or four seconds”. Afterwards, there were another 19 seconds of communication when the rockets were not firing.

Experts said that showed that the thrusters cut out far too early because they were supposed to fire for 29 seconds before cutting out two metres (6 ft) above the Martian surface.

Despite the mishap, Engineers were putting a brave face on the mishap today and even claimed that the landing had been a success.

That is because Schiaparelli was intended to test the descent phase for a follow-up rover in 2020, and ESA says the data received gave them all the information they needed.

Today’s press conference to discuss what happened to Schiaparelli. Credit: ESA

But to space fans, it seemed like a sad repeat of the failure of the last European lander, the UK’s Beagle 2, which was lost on Mars on Christmas Day, 2003.

ESA’s Director General Jan Woerner looked rattled when press questions focused on the possible crash rather than the success of the orbiter which will spend years looking for signs of life. It will also act as a vital relay for the next stage of Europe’s ExoMars project to put a rover on Mars in 2020.

Asked if the loss of Schiaparelli might jeopardise funding from European ministers for the 2020 landing, he said: “We don’t have to convince ministers. The benefits are obvious.”

You can read more about Mars here.

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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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