Monday, November 28, 2016

La Vendetta Schiaparelli

          By Brian Orlotti

This week, in the wake of new information on the October, 2016 crash of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Schiaparelli Mars lander (part of the ExoMars program), a vendetta of sorts is playing out.

The vendetta and its consequences illustrate the pitfalls of operating within the government space realm.

A different vendetta. Frank Pentangelli (Michael V. Gazzo) meeting the Rosato brothers (Carmine Caridi and Danny Aiello) from the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola movie, The Godfather Part II. Screenshot c/o You-Tube.

As outlined in the November 23rd, 2016 Space News post, "ESA: Mars lander crash caused by 1-second inertial measurement error," the ESA has revealed that the Schiaparelli lander’s October 19th, 2016 crash landing on Mars was caused by an unexplained saturation of its inertial measurement unit (IMU), which then delivered incorrect navigational data to the lander’s computer.

Tainted by this bad data, the lander’s computer believed that it was about to land or had landed already. The lander then prematurely triggered its parachute, briefly fired its landing thrusters, and then activated its on-ground systems. All of this took place while, in fact, Schiaparelli was still 3.7 kms above Mars’ surface.

The lander crashed, but not before transmitting a great deal of Martian atmospheric data back to the ESA.

The plot thickened the next day when, as outlined in the November 24th, 2016 Romanian Insider post, "Romanian entrepreneur in conflict with Italian Space Agency over failed Mars mission," the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI) publicly blamed one of its subcontractors, the ARCA Space Corporation, for the crash of the Schiaparelli lander.

ARCA, a company registered in New Mexico and founded by Romanian entrepreneur Dumitru Popescu, was under a €1.1 million EUR ($1.56Mln CDN) contract to the ESA to conduct Schiaparelli’s flight and atmospheric entry testing.

In an article in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, ASI stated that ARCA had run into issues and then cancelled testing. Adding insult to injury, La Repubblica described Popescu (a theology graduate), as a dreamer with a track record of failure. The newspaper also stated that the Romanian Space Agency had once described ARCA as a “group of amateurs looking only for publicity.”

On the same day, ARCA issued a statement flatly denying responsibility for the crash. The company said that it was responsible only for testing Schiaparelli’s landing parachute, not the IMU. ARCA claims that an Italian firm was tasked with testing the IMU and so may have been culpable in the crash. Company representatives also implied that ARCA would take legal action against ASI for libel.

According to Romanian website, Dumitru Popescu had initially stated that some of ARCA’s project testing could not be done because the intended testing ground lay close to the Crimea region, which at the time had just come under Russian occupation.

And finally, as outlined in the November 25th, 2016 Mars Daily post, "ExoMars space programme needs an extra 400 million euros," the ESA has indicated to journalists on a conference call that it will ask its member nations to cough up an additional €400 million EUR ($569Mln CDN), on top of the already budgeted €1.5 billion EUR ($2.13Bln CDN), to complete the final phase of the ExoMars program, which will see a rover sent to the Red Planet in 2020.

Ministers from ESA’s twenty--three member nations (including Canada) will meet in Lucerne, Switzerland on December 1st - 2nd, 2016 as part of the 2016 European Space Agency (ESA) Ministerial Conference, to discuss the cost overrun.

ExoMars’ expediency-driven overruns and scapegoating are inherent to government-oriented space programs. In our current age of low-cost micro-satellites, open-source robotics and low-cost rockets, Europe’s traditional approach to space may be at the point of diminishing returns.
Brian Orlotti.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment

Support our Patreon Page