Spaceflight Insider

ESA completes investigation of Schiaparelli crash

Artist’s impression of the Schiaparelli module after the parachute has been deployed and the front shield jettisoned. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Artist’s impression of the Schiaparelli module after the parachute was deployed and the front shield jettisoned. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

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.

Schiaparelli impact site. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Schiaparelli impact site. (Click to enlarge) Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona

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.

Heatshield sensors. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Heat shield sensors. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab



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.

Reader Comments

The failure analysis report finds the reason for the crash in IMU saturation. One must clarify however, that the design concept for the critical landing phase is ZERO-FAILRE TOLERANT i.e. even when fixing the identified weakness next time something else could fail. The most important recommentations in the non-technical field are implementation of systems engineering at system level and proper verification.
I could not believe that such weak points can happen at the EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY!!!

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