During its descent to the surface of Mars last month Europe's Schiaparelli lander experienced just a second when conditions were outside what it had been programmed to expect just above Mars' surface, causing a device that measured how fast it was spinning to falter.
The data glitch was passed along to Schiaparelli's navigation system, which came to the erroneous conclusion that the probe actually was beneath the surface of Mars, a preliminary report on the accident posted on European Space Agency's website Wednesday shows.
In reality, Schiaparelli was 2.3 miles above ground and still very much in need of its parachute, which was jettisoned prematurely, and its braking rockets, which fired only briefly. The probe even activated on-ground systems, thinking it had already landed, ESA said.
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Schiaparelli ended up in pieces on the surface of Mars, but the information relayed back to Earth during the descent will help engineers design a better system for landing for a sophisticated rover that is scheduled for launch in 2020. Schiaparelli was intended as a test run for the ExoMars rover, which is designed to find out if Mars has or ever had life.
"We will have learned much from Schiaparelli that will directly contribute to the second ExoMars mission," David Parker, ESA's director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, said in a statement.
A full report on the accident is expected early next year.
Artist's illustration of Schiaparelli's heat shield blasting through the Martian sky. Credit: ESA/ATG media lab.
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