The Schiaparelli hasn’t landed, it appears.
Officials from the European Space Agency said on Thursday that they had stopped receiving signals from the Schiaparelli lander, a part of the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft, a sign that it had failed to make its planned “soft landing” on the surface of Mars.
Despite the apparent failure, officials said they were not alarmed. The lander was supposed to conduct scientific measurements from the Martian surface, but the primary goal was to help prepare for a more ambitious mission in 2020.
The other part of the spacecraft, the Trace Gas Orbiter, has been transmitting data since it entered Mars’s orbit on Wednesday.
“Following yesterday’s events, we have an impressive orbiter around Mars ready for science and for relay support for the ExoMars rover mission in 2020,” Johann-Dietrich Wörner, director general of the European Space Agency, said in a statement. “Schiaparelli’s primary role was to test European landing technologies. Recording the data during the descent was part of that.”
He added that it was important to “learn what happened, in order to prepare for the future,” but said that it would take time for officials to decode the data. The mission is a joint effort by the European and Russian space agencies.
David Parker, the European agency’s director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, said that “we have data coming back that allow us to fully understand the steps that did occur, and why the soft landing did not occur,” and that a board of inquiry would “dig deeper into the data.”
Schiaparelli’s mother ship will remain in orbit to analyze gases in the planet’s atmosphere, an effort that could answer questions like whether the planet has ever supported life.
Early indications from radio signals captured by the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope — an experimental telescope array near Pune, India — and from the orbiter suggest that the landing module “successfully completed most steps of its six-minute descent through the Martian atmosphere,” including deceleration through the atmosphere, and the deployment of its parachute and heat shield, the agency said.
However, both sets of signals “stopped shortly before the module was expected to touch down on the surface,” officials announced. Discrepancies between the two data sets are being analyzed by the agency’s space operations center in Darmstadt, Germany.
“The data have been partially analyzed and confirm that the entry and descent stages occurred as expected, with events diverging from what was expected after the ejection of the back heat shield and parachute,” the agency said. “This ejection itself appears to have occurred earlier than expected, but analysis is not yet complete. The thrusters were confirmed to have been briefly activated, although it seems likely that they switched off sooner than expected, at an altitude that is still to be determined.”