ExoMars update: TGO is in orbit around Mars! Schiaparelli — we don’t know.

First off, a bit of good news: ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter (the first major element of the ExoMars program) has successfully entered orbit around the planet Mars!  It joins the existing fleet of Martian orbiters, including ESA’s Mars Express, NASA’s Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN, and India’s Mangalyaan-1 (or Mars Orbiter Mission).  This puts a record-breaking six active spacecraft around Mars.

Unfortunately, the news is less cheerful for the Schiaparelli lander that was hitching a piggyback ride to Mars atop TGO.  A direct beam to Earth was observed on an experimental basis by an Indian radio telescope; the signal indicated successful backshell release, parachute deploy, and heat shield separation, but cut off abruptly moments before touchdown was expected.  Mars Express had been listening to the lander as well, and after completing an orbit it was able to relay what it had received — unfortunately, it received exactly the same thing.  Schiaparelli was scheduled to contact Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter half an hour after landing, but MRO received no signal, on that or its next pass over the landing site.  At this point, the fate of Schiaparelli is unknown.

Mars has eaten a lot of landers through the years.  It is significantly more difficult to land on Mars than on other worlds, and the extreme speed of entry from solar orbit means there is a hell of a lot of energy to cope with if anything is even slightly misjudged.  At this point, I have to say it doesn’t look good for Schiaparelli.  But the good news is that TGO, the larger and more significant portion of the project, is in good health!  ESA will learn from this, and be ready for the much more ambitious rover mission planned for the second half of the ExoMars program, scheduled for launched in 2018.

TGO and Schiaparelli prepare for vibration testing in their launch configuration.  TGO’s solar arrays are tightly folded, and the cone at the top is Schiaparelli’s descent module.

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