The rover that doesn’t know how to quit, Mars Exploration Rover B “Opportunity” has just departed “Cape Tribulation”, a feature on the rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars. It’s spent the last 30 months at this location, conserving power over the Martian winter (since unlike Curiosity, it’s solar powered), and now it’s ready to move on. The next destination is a nearby valley in the huge crater’s rim, called “Perseverance Valley”. It’s a good name for a valley soon to be explored by a spacecraft 13 years into its 3-month mission. 😉 Opportunity will begin by studying the top of the valley, then move down it in the sort of pattern you’d expect a geologist to take while studying erosion and deposits that may explain how the valley was formed.
Here’s a final full-color panoramic look at Cape Tribulation:
The Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” is an amazing vehicle in an exceptionally hostile environment, and it seems it is having some issues with its drill. The drill itself is working fine, but the motor that extends the drill bit forward to touch the rock face is not cooperating. As a consequence, Curiosity is on non-drilling duties while the JPL team analyzes the problem and decides what to try next. Fortunately, it has a wealth of other instrumentation, so Curiosity has been far from idle. Here’s one of the pictures it took while on its “drilling hiatus”:
The MRO team has now released high-res images acquired during a planned pass by MRO over the Schiaparelli landing site. It does shed a little more light, although engineers will glean far more useful information from the 600MB of data it managed to uplink to Mars Express before perishing. (The early indications from that, by the way, are that it was probably a software problem, not hardware, although ESA has not given more detail than that yet. The most they’ve said is that some events were clearly commanded too soon.)
The new image clearly shows not only the impact site, but also the heatshield and and the parachute, still attached to the backshell. Perhaps the most interesting feature is a lighter arc extending out from the Schiaparelli impact site. This could be a debris trail left behind by a ruptured propellant tank exiting the spacecraft on impact. It will certainly be subject to careful analysis in the coming weeks.
The MRO team plans another pass later, which will allow stereo imaging of the site. This should help determine whether the black smudge is just a smudge or if its more of a crater. If nothing else, in addition to the wealth of engineering data obtained during descent, this is a unique opportunity to advance impact science.
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.
First off, the happy news! Soyuz MS-02 launched successfully from Baikonur Cosmodrome yesterday. Aboard were Sergey Ryzhikov, Andrei Borisenko, and Shane Kimbrough. The mission was delayed a month due to technical issues with the spacecraft, but the repaired vehicle is performing well. They will arrive at the ISS tomorrow; the longer two-day approach was selected to allow more opportunity to test the new Soyuz MS series.
And now the less happy news: ESA has analyzed the data from the Schiaparelli lander, and although they still do not know what happened exactly, they have a better picture and it isn’t good. The only data they have comes from monitoring of its telemetry during descent. The entry sequence was nominal through atmospheric entry and parachute deploy, but then events started to deviate. The signal indicating parachute and backshell jettison came early, and then the engines ignited and the descent radar was switched on. However, they only appear to have burned for 3-4 seconds, and it isn’t clear whether all nine engines fired, nor what altitude the probe was actually at. They were expecting the engines to fire for about 30 seconds. At this point, they do not know whether backshell jettison was too high, or whether something caused a false indication of landing leading to premature engine cutoff (which is what killed Mars Polar Lander), or whether it actually came in much lower than expected, leading to it hitting the ground just a few second after ignition. They actually got about 600 MB of data during the descent, so they have a lot more data to look at. But although ESA hasn’t completely given up, it really looks like the lander is dead. Hopefully the second lander, in two years, will have better fortune; Mars is difficult, extremely difficult, but it rewards persistence.
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.
Two exciting moments in spaceflight today! First off, the much-anticipated return to flight for Antares, launching from Wallops Island in Virginia and delivering the Cygnus “SS Alan Poindexter” on the OA-5 mission to the International Space Station. Alan Poindexter has since deployed its circular solar arrays, a lightweight design making its third flight on this mission, and is making its way towards the ISS. Capture and berthing is expected Sunday. Antares had a spectacular failure on its last flight, using 1960s legacy NK-33 engines. The new Antares has brand new RD-181 engines from NPO Energomash in Russia on its first stage; the first stage tankage and plumbing, meanwhile, are still built by the Ukrainian company Yuzhnoye, while the upper stage is a Castor-30 solid fuel rocket built in house by Orbital ATK.
Cygnus OA-5 is named for Alan Poindexter. Orbital has established a tradition of naming their cargo vessels for deceased astronauts. Poindexter was an accomplished naval aviator and test pilot, who after joining the astronaut corps went on to make two missions into space aboard the Space Shuttle. Upon retiring from the astronaut corps, he returned to the Navy as an educator. However, he tragically died just two years later at the age of 50 in a boating accident.
Meanwhile, millions of miles away, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has released the Schiaparelli lander. This is ESA’s first attempt to land on the red planet. (Beagle 2, which piggybacked on Mars Express, was a purely British enterprise.) The Trace Gas Orbiter then performed a Mars avoidance maneuver; at the time of release, it was on a Mars collision course, which was necessary in order for the lander to end up on the right trajectory. TGO will enter Mars orbit in two days, while Schiaparelli will be entering the atmosphere the same day — there will be some very tense controllers in Darmstadt for sure. ExoMars is a European-Russian joint program that actually spans two missions — this one, launched by the Russians in exchange for carrying some Russian instruments originally designed for the Phobos-Grunt mission, and a second one in 2018 that will feature a rover. It’s an ambitious move in Europe’s planetary program; cross your fingers for them!