Last week, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flew over the planned landing zone for ESA’s Schiaparelli Lander. The orbiter’s ‘context camera’ spotted two fuzzy areas of interest. A dark patch measuring about 15 by 40 meters in size. And what appeared to be the lander’s parachute 1km to the south.
The high-resolution camera gives us a much sharper look at the impact site. We can see the exact 2.4 meter across dark mark, which shows us the impact site and is consistent with a 600+ pound lander slamming into the Martian surface at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour according to the ESA. The rear heat shield is nestled right below the parachute. And we can see the front heat shield off to the right of the impact site.
The dark asymmetric marks around the impact site are tougher for the ExoMars team to figure out. The Schiaparelli Lander wasn’t a meteorite traveling at speeds around 25,000 miles per hour. Asymmetric debris formed by a meteorite typically indicates a low strike angle. Debris from the impact would be thrown towards the direction a meteorite was traveling when making impact.
In Schiaparelli’s case (which was moving much slower and falling near vertical), one possibility would be the lander’s hydrazine fuel tanks exploding in one particular direction. A dark, arcing line can be seen stretching from left to right near the crater. The ExoMars team don’t have an explanation for this, but it could also be linked to the impact. It’s something ESA officials will attempt to figure out as they piece together exactly what happened.
What did happen to the Schiaparelli lander?
Preliminary estimates say the lander dropped from a height between 2 and 4 kilometers (1.2 to 2.4 miles). The thrusters meant to slow the spacecraft down switched off prematurely. Images from NASA’s MRO show the parachute and back heat shield were released before this final phase. But for whatever reason, the nine thrusters meant to ensure a smooth landing didn’t operate as intended.
The ExoMars team is busy reconstructing the events of Schiaparelli’s entry and figuring out exactly what went wrong. There’s plenty of data for them to pour over. And the MRO plans to snap more high-res images of the crash site over the next few weeks.
The lander was an important piece for the ESA and their Roscosmos partners. It was meant to provide the technology and more importantly, the know-how, for landing on Mars. Its crash is a setback, but engineers have time to figure out what went wrong and apply those fixes before the second launch of the ExoMars program comes in 2020.
NASA’s rovers continue to wheel around by themselves. No other agency has had successful rover/lander missions on the red planet.