ESA completes investigation of Schiaparelli crash
An independent external inquiry into the crash-landing of the ExoMars Schiaparelli module has determined that conflicting information in the onboard computer caused the descent sequence to end prematurely. Schiaparelli – the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) – and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) launched on March 14, 2016, atop a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Schiaparelli module separated from the TGO as planned on October 16, 2016, and coasted toward Mars for three days. For most of the six-minute descent on October 19, 2016, things went as expected. The module entered the Martian atmosphere correctly, with the heat shield protecting it at supersonic speeds. Sensors on the front and back shields recorded useful data on the atmosphere and the heat shield.
Schiaparelli relayed telemetry data to the TGO, which was entering orbit around Mars at the same time, the first time this had been achieved in Mars exploration. This real-time transmission of data was crucial in reconstructing the unfolding chain of events. The lander’s carrier signal was also monitored by the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India.
In the days and weeks after the module’s descent, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took several images identifying the module, the front shield, and the parachute still connected with the back shield on the Martian surface, very close to its targeted landing site. The images suggest that while these pieces of hardware had separated from the module as expected, Schiaparelli itself impacted the surface at high speed.
The recently concluded independent external inquiry was chaired by ESA’s Inspector General. The inquiry’s report identifies the circumstances and root causes of the crash and makes general recommendations to avoid such defects and weaknesses in the future.
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.