snapshots

Oct 20, 2016 | 15:36 GMT

3 mins read

Europe: Why the Mars Lander Likely Failed

The Schiaparelli lander launched by the European Space Agency appears to have failed to safely land on Mars. Although the agency has not officially confirmed the news, it has been unable to communicate with the probe since it was scheduled to land Oct. 19. Telemetry data suggests that the parachute jettisoned too early and that the thrusters meant to control landing did not burn as planned. Schiaparelli likely crashed on impact.

If true, this would mark the second failed attempt by Europe to land a probe on Mars. In 2003, the European Space Agency launched the Beagle 2 lander, which disappeared mysteriously. Its fate was unknown until NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted the lander in January 2015 images. Analysis of the photos indicated that the Beagle 2 had not managed to fully deploy its solar panels.

The Schiaparelli spacecraft's apparent fate would also add to the lengthy list of Mars landers that have failed without the help of the world leader in deep space exploration, NASA. To date, all of the projects not involving NASA have failed. NASA has had seven successful missions and just one failure. Soft landings and automated control from long distance — both critical for a Mars mission — are among the most challenging maneuvers in space exploration today.

The failure of the Schiaparelli lander will challenge the broader $1.4 billion ExoMars project, a joint initiative between the European Space Agency and Russia's Roscosmos. The Schiaparelli lander was a small part of this overall project, which plans to launch a second rover in 2020. Information and experience gained from Schiaparelli was supposed to inform the follow-up mission.

While the most difficult portion of the Schiaparelli mission was unsuccessful, the mission has not been a total failure. The European Space Agency announced that the Trace Gas Orbiter carried by Schiaparelli, perhaps the more important spacecraft from a scientific point of view, had been successfully inserted into orbit around Mars. From that position, it will investigate the biological or geological origin of trace gases on Mars. Of course the failure of the lander would add challenges to the next lander and rover mission, but data from the Trace Gas Orbiter will help.

With the exception of the International Space Station, the ExoMars project is the most collaborative space science mission in the works today. These cooperative projects are becoming increasingly common and set the paradigm for future endeavors. The European Space Agency is by definition a joint space agency. The ExoMars project bears this out: Italy constructed the Schiaparelli lander, the British Airbus division is responsible for the 2020 rover, the French-Italian manufacturer Thales Alenia Space built the Trace Gas Orbiter, Roscosmos will build most of the 2020 lander and is providing the Proton rockets for the launches involved. Roscosmos' involvement is particularly noteworthy: Russia has not been meaningfully involved in space science since the end of the Cold War.

ExoMars' recent challenges highlight the numerous difficulties in mounting a manned mission to Mars. From a controlled descent, to radio communications, to long-term habitat and health systems — everything required to visit Mars is challenging. But initiatives to reach the planet will continue. Last week U.S. President Barack Obama penned an op-ed saying that the United States would continue to push for manned Mars exploration and last month SpaceX CEO Elon Musk outlined plans to do so.

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