Mars Lander Crashed, Possibly Exploded
Satellite imagery from a NASA Mars orbiter shows the impact from the free-falling European Schiaparelli lander.
Updated 6 p.m. ET Satellite imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) dashed hopes that Europe's Schiaparelli lander arrived in one piece on the surface of Mars.
Before and after shots of Schiaparelli's landing site show a white spot, believed to be the probe's jettisoned parachute, and a large dark region, the likely crash site, images released on Friday show.
Schiaparelli apparently was traveling at more than 186 mph when it slammed into the ground, the European Space Agency said. The probe also likely exploded on impact since its fuel tank was still full.
Schiaparelli was supposed to use the fuel for thruster firings that would trim its speed as it neared the surface of Mars Wednesday morning. Instead, radio signals show Schiaparelli jettisoned its parachute early and then burned its thrusters for just three or four seconds, far short of expectations.
A computer simulation of the descent posted on ESA's website, shows Schiaparelli's parachute being jettisoned 31 seconds before touchdown. Instead, the lander apparently released its chute more than 20 seconds early.
European Space Agency director Johann-Dietrich Woerner tried to put a positive spin on the botched landing, telling reporters on Thursday that Schiaparelli was always intended as a test and that the key part of the mission was to get its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), into orbit around Mars.
In addition to scouting for atmospheric chemicals that may be tied to life, TGO will serve as a communications relay for a follow-on rover that will directly search for past or present day life on Mars. The ExoMars rover is scheduled to launch in 2020.
Schiaparelli's goal, Woerner added, was to relay data about its entry, descent and landing -- successful or otherwise.
Despite the failed touchdown, Woerner considers the Schiaparelli mission 80 percent successful, since data was relayed for 80 percent of the descent.
"We will obtain information ... on the performance of elements such as the heat shield, parachute, radar, thrusters and so on," Woerner wrote on ESA's website Friday. "This information can subsequently be used to improve the design of the 2020 ExoMars mission, since in that mission the survival of the descent module will be of real scientific relevance."
"All in all, a very positive result," he said.
What happened to Schiaparelli will take days, if not weeks, to sort out, but Woerner said it should not impact Europe's commitment to build and fly the ExoMars rover.
ESA originally planned the rover's landing system to be similar to Schiaparelli's, but Russia, which joined the project after the United States backed out, has a different approach, ESA scientist Olivier Witasse said at the American Astronomical Society conference in Pasadena, Calif., this week.
"We will not reuse all the technology from Schiaparelli," Witasse said.
Higher resolution images of the crash site, expected next week from NASA's MRO, could provide ESA vital information to improve its odds.
Photo: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's before and after views of Schiaparelli's landing site. Image reveals bright spot, believed to be the lander's jettisoned parachute, and a dark oval shape, where the lander impacted the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS WATCH VIDEO: Will ExoMars Find Life on the Red Planet?