Yesterday, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flew above the Schiaparelli’s (ExoMars lander) landing site. Here’s what it saw.
We can see two noticeable changes in the images above. The dark, burn mark immediately jumps out. It measures about 15 x 40 meters and is more than likely the result of Schiaparelli slamming into the Martian surface at high speed.
It’s obvious Schiaparelli’s descent didn’t go according to plan.
This is how Schiaparelli should look today.
Estimates of the data gathered so far indicate the lander entered a free-fall between 2 and 4 kilometers above the red planet’s surface after the thrusters were switched off too soon. ESA officials believe the lander impacted the surface at 300+ km/h (186+ mph).
The speed combined with the fact the fuel tanks were still mostly full explains Mars’ newest burn mark.
We also see a smaller, bright area located about 1km south of the impact zone. It’s believed to be the parachute used in the second stage of Schiaparelli’s descent.
Work continues to determine what happened during Schiaparelli’s descent. Huge amounts of data were relayed back to the Trace Gas Orbiter during the lander’s atmospheric entry. Engineers will analyze the data to reconstruct exactly what happened in the final minutes of Schiaparelli and what caused the thrusters to switch off early.
Better pictures of Schiaparelli’s impact next week
Today’s images were gathered by the Context Camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Next week, the MRO will fly over with its HiRISE camera trained on the impact zone. The ExoMars team hopes the higher-resolution images will reveal the front heat shield and paint a better picture of what happened.
But it’s not all bad news. The other half of the ExoMars mission is performing great. The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) is in its planned orbit, and all its instruments are in the green. In November, science calibration data will be gathered during two orbits. By March, TGO will begin its long aerobraking maneuver to bring its orbit down to 400 kilometers around Mars. Aerobraking takes longer but conserves precious fuel.
Losing Schiaparelli is a blow for the ExoMars team. But, it’s also a learning moment. Schiaparelli was the test for the ExoMars 2020 rover. ESA scientists can learn from what went wrong Wednesday to help ensure the same problem doesn’t happen four years from now.