Exploration

Mars' Newest Crater Could Be a Target for Science

The unfortunate transition of Schiaparelli lander into "Schiaparelli Crater" may have a silver lining.

Scientists and engineers had hoped Europe's Schiaparelli Mars lander would just be running out of power about now, following a successful mission on the planet's surface.

Instead, Schiaparelli landed with a bang on Oct. 19, victim of a possible software glitch that jettisoned its parachute and shut down landing thrusters woefully early.

Europe has tried to put a happy face on the test flight, which was intended as a trial run before a larger and much more sophisticated rover touches down on Mars in 2021 to search for life.

While impacts to the joint European-Russian ExoMars rover are being sorted out, scientists have cast their eyes on the planet's newest crater, wondering if they may make use of the unexpected glimpse into a freshly unearthed subsurface.

The 660-pound Schiaparelli hit the ground at more than 180 mph, leaving a small crater about 8 feet in diameter and about 20 inches deep.

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Satellites circling Mars have been trying to get a look as they pass overhead.

"We might see a shallow crater, which could provide some (information) on Mars surface properties, but it's complicated," University of Arizona astronomer Alfred McEwen, lead scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter high-resolution camera, wrote in an email to Seeker.

Others were more pessimistic.

"The crater could still be interesting even if small, but in our case it is likely to be contaminated by all kinds of material from the lander and its fuel. So I would not recommend any effort to study this place from that point of view," project scientist Håkan Svedhem said.

NASA and Europe released the first high-resolution MRO images of the crash site on Thursday. The pictures were taken on Tuesday.

"This first HiRISE observation does not show topography indicating the presence of a crater," the European Space Agency said in a statement. "Stereo information from combining this observation with a future one may provide a way to check."

Schiaparelli hit near its intended landing site, a flat region about 2 degrees south of the equator known as Meridiani Planum. The region is not high on scientists' lists of sites that potentially could have hosted and preserved life, but still of interest.

NASA's Opportunity rover has been exploring Meridiani for almost 13 years, but it is too far away to visit Mars' newest impact basin, Schiaparelli crater.

Photo: An image of the landing site taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. At lower left is the parachute. At mid-upper left are markings left by the lander's impact. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona