ExoMars mission hits snag after scientists lose contact with Mars lander

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Artist's impression depicting the separation of the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter, and heading for Mars. Photo by ESA/ATG medialab

Artist’s impression depicting the separation of the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter, and heading for Mars. Photo by ESA/ATG medialab

European Space Agency scientists are searching for signs that part of a $1.4 billion ExoMars space mission landed safely on the Red Planet.

The ExoMars 2016 mission, a European-Russian joint project, is made up of two units–the Schiaparelli lander and the Trace Gas Orbiter, a satellite designed to analyze the planet’s atmosphere. The Schiaparelli probe is a precursor to a more advanced lander that will launch in a second ExoMars mission in 2020. Both Schiaparelli and the Trace Gas Orbiter are searching for signs of life on Mars.

Wednesday’s operation expected to lose contact with the Schiaparelli lander as it descended into the Martian atmosphere at 11:12 am EDT.

“Initial signals were received via the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) as Schiaparelli descended to the surface of Mars, but no signal indicating touchdown yet,” operations scientists posted to ESA’s website.

Despite multiple attempts to confirm a successful descent, however, the lander’s status remains unclear.

Overview of Schiaparelli's entry, descent and landing sequence on Mars, with approximate time, altitude and speed of key events indicated. Photo by ESA/ATG medialab

Overview of Schiaparelli’s entry, descent and landing sequence on Mars, with approximate time, altitude and speed of key events indicated. Photo by ESA/ATG medialab

Mission scientists also attempted to analyze a recording of Schiaparelli’s descent, which was captured by an older ESA satellite called Mars Express. But the data proved inconclusive.

They must now wait for NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to scan the planet’s surface and determine the lander’s fate. But the next update on the lander won’t be issued until early Thursday morning.

ESA confirmed the Trace Gas Orbiter successfully maneuvered into orbit around Mars.

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ESA’s last attempt at a Mars attempt came in 2003 with the Beagle 2 rover. It successfully touched down, but it never transmitted a signal due to its solar panels failing to open.

NASA already has two rovers on Mars to study the planet’s dunes and craters.

You can watch the simulated ExoMars arrival and landing in real time here.

The post ExoMars mission hits snag after scientists lose contact with Mars lander appeared first on PBS NewsHour.