Monday, October 24, 2016

Schiaparelli Goes Splat!

          By Brian Orlotti

The Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), a joint mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has apparently crashed on Mars and its wreckage has been located.

As outlined in the October 21st, 2016 Universe Today post, "Schiaparelli is gone, Smashed on to the Surface of Mars," the Schiaparelli lander "hit the ground hard and may very well have exploded on impact." Photo's from the US Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken before and after Schiaparelli's decent, suggest a very hard landing "following a much longer free fall than planned after the thrusters were switched off prematurely." Image  c/o NASA.

As outlined in the October 19th, 2016 Spaceflight Insider post, "Lost on Mars: Schiaparelli lander falls silent shortly before touchdown," the Schiaparelli lander, the first of the two part exobiology on Mars (ExoMars) astrobiology project designed to search for evidence of Martian life, ceased communicating with ESA mission control approximately one minute before its planned touchdown on October 19th.

On Oct 21st , NASA released photos of the landing site taken by its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) which seem to confirm the ExoMars team’s suspicions. The MRO’s photos show a bright feature consistent with Schiaparelli’s 12 meter wide parachute, as well as a 15x40 m dark patch likely created by the lander's impact, ESA officials said.

The ESA estimates that the lander dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kms, impacting Mars’ surface at speeds of over 300 km/h. ESA officials also stated that Schiaparelli may have exploded on impact due to its thruster propellant tanks, which likely remaining full because the lander did not fire its descent thrusters for as long as required to slow the decent.

The suspected crash site lies about 5.4 km west of Schiaparelli's intended landing site in Mars' Meridiani Planum, a highland region just south of the Red Planet's equator. The impact site is well within the planned landing area, which measures 62 miles long by 9 miles wide (100 by 15 km), ESA officials said. 

Schiaparelli was launched last March along with its orbiter, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). The two spacecraft comprise the first phase of the two-phase ExoMars program, being led by the ESA in partnership with Russia’s federal space agency, Roscosmos.

Schiaparelli was to have served as a test bed for life-hunting technologies to be used on a rover in ExoMars' second phase in 2021. ESA officials have stated that Schiaparelli's descent data will still be useful in this regard despite the probe’s loss.

The TGO remains in good condition and is now orbiting Mars. In early 2017, the TGO will begin shifting to its final science orbit of some 400km above Mars. The TGO is expected to complete this manuver and begin its two year mission in March 2018. The TGO will investigate the origin of methane and other trace gases in the Martian atmosphere. Methane is of particular interest to scientists as a potential sign of life.

The TGO will also serve as a communications relay for the ExoMars 2020 rover as well as NASA’s currently operational Mars surface craft, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, before winding down in 2022.

The ExoMars project has several Canadian connections. They include:

  • ExoMars’ project manager Don McCoy, an engineer born in Winnipeg, MB. Holding degrees in chemistry, civil engineering, and aerospace engineering, McCoy has worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, the ESA’s Huygens probe as well as the Mars Express and Venus Express missions. He was appointed ExoMars project manager in December 2006.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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