Space probe's fate cruelly revealed in new snaps of attempted landing... but scientists insist the mission was a success.
SPACE probe Schiaparelli made a 1.6ft deep crater when it landed on Mars, new pictures have shown.The European Space Agency may be avoiding use of the words “crash” and “failure” when describing the attempted landing, but the fate of the lander has been cruelly exposed in new snaps released today.
Pictures taken from the planet show the lander lying on the surface of Mars surrounded by scorch marks, which could mean its fuel tank exploded.
Mission controllers at the space agency lost contact with the probe shortly after it entered Mars’ atmosphere.
Though it went down within its landing intended zone, it is believed the probe ejected its parachute too early and plummeted at more than 186 mph.
It is expected the images, shot by NASA, will reveal exactly what went wrong with the landing.
Finding out what happened to Schiaparelli is vital to the future of ExoMars, an ambitious two-stage mission to search for signs of life on the Red Planet.
The ESA-Russian Space Agency has stressed that Schiaparelli was always meant to be a technical demonstrator and useful lessons would be learned from the crash.
It is believed the crash will pave the way for a far bigger venture in 2020, with a sophisticated rover to hunt for clues about life.
Despite this, the failure raises a number of questions about the risks associated with a potential follow-on mission, and whether ESA’s member governments will be so quick to pledge the funds required to launch it.
The Schiaparelli probe was supposed to land last week, using a combination of a heat-shield and a parachute to slow its fall, and retro-rockets to lower it to the surface.
After a flawless start to the mission, communications were lost during what should have been the final minute of descent.
Satellite images have confirmed it was probably travelling at more than 300 km per hour (186 mph) when it smashed into an equatorial Martian plain on October 19.
Because its fuel tanks were almost full, it may have exploded on impact.
Scientists quickly established that the parachute and back cover were released much earlier than they should have been for a successful landing, according to a pre-programmed sequence of tasks.
Its three clusters of retro-rockets fired for only about three seconds before switching off.
The thrusters should have burned for 29 seconds, causing the probe to hover briefly over the landing site before dropping the remaining few feet to the ground.
ESA investigators believe the retro-rockets cut off so soon because Schiaparelli, which was designed to think for itself during the descent and landing, got the mistaken impression it was already safely grounded.
ESA’s Director-General, Jan Woerner, has insisted the mission was a success despite the crash.
According to the chief, the fact that the spacecraft transmitted data for five of the six minutes of its descent – all the while providing useful invaluable information – means the key stages of the operation worked well.
Woerner also mentioned that the lander’s mother ship – christened Trace Gas Orbiter – had been successfully placed in an orbit, which would allow it to test Mars air for methane.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to snap pictures of the landing zone shortly after the mission, which revealed two new dots on the planet’s landscape – one dark dot for the probe, and a white dot for its parachute.
The same spacecraft also used its built-in HiRise camera to focus on the landing zone and produce the images released on Thursday.