MRO has found Schiaparelli

Unfortunately, it confirms what we all pretty much already knew: it has crashed.  Any faint hope that the apparent three-second burn was due to communications problems has been dashed.  MRO photographed the lander (and its parachute) in this image.  The animation basically compares an image of the same location taken before the landing with now:


This image is from a preplanned sequence of images designed specifically to find the lander after touchdown; MRO has photographed several landers in this manner, including Mars Phoenix Lander and Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, and it can provide invaluable engineering data.  On this occasion, that paid off in spades by providing the first post-landing data on what happened to the probe.

The white dot that appears in the bottom of the right-hand inset is probably the supersonic parachute.  The dark smudge at the top is probably the impact site of Schiaparelli.  This spot is 5.4 km uprange from the target site for the landing, although well within Schiaparelli’s landing ellipse and thus a reasonable place to have found the probe even if all had gone well – and if nothing else, this indicates it was right on track before the mishap occurred.    The bright and dark patches are about a kilometer apart; the dark patch is about 15 x 40 meters, which is far too large to represent an intact lander.  If, as seems likely, the engines shut off after just a few seconds, it would have had full tanks of hydrazine monopropellant; it could have exploded on impact.  Analyzing the descent data and the imagery, ESA engineers believe it may have fallen 2-4 km, resulting in an impact velocity of upwards of 300 km per hour, which would have been pretty destructive even if the tanks didn’t rupture.

It’s unfortunate, but ESA is keeping a positive attitude.  The primary objective for this mission was the Trace Gas Orbiter, and that is doing excellently.  TGO is a necessary element for phase two of the ExoMars mission, a rover due to launch in 2020 (originally 2018, but about six months ago, ESA moved it to the next Mars window due to technical delays), so it is good to have it there.  And while Schiaparelli will not have been able to test all of the landing technology, it did successfully validate most of it.  Going to Mars is extremely difficult, and Schiaparelli is far from the first probe to be eaten by the Red Planet.  ESA will learn from this, and incorporate lessons from it into the ExoMars rover’s landing system.

Meanwhile, a higher-resolution imaging sequence of the site by MRO is being planned, to hopefully collect more specific information on the ill-fated spacecraft.


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