Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spies Schiaparelli crash site
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has spotted the crash site of Schiaparelli, the lander portion of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars 2016 mission. Images that were taken on October 25 by MRO’s High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera show three impact locations within about 0.9 miles (1.5 kilometers) of each other.
ESA lost contact with the lander during its October 16 descent into the Martian atmosphere just seconds prior to a planned touchdown on the surface. It is assumed Schiaparelli’s thrusters shut off prematurely, resulting in a much longer free-fall than the lander was designed to handle.
HiRISE’s imagery of the site includes three locations where hardware reached the ground. A dark, roughly circular feature is interpreted to be where the lander itself struck. A pattern of rays extending from the circle suggests that the lander excavated a shallow crater upon impact. This would be expected, given the premature engine shutdown. According to a media release from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Media Relations Office:
About 0.8-mile (1.4 kilometers) eastward, an object with several bright spots surrounded by darkened ground is likely the heat shield. About 0.8-mile (1.4 kilometers) south of the lander impact site, two features side-by-side are interpreted as the spacecraft’s parachute and the back shell to which the parachute was attached. Additional images to be taken from different angles are planned and will aid interpretation of these early results.
The new HiRISE imaging is providing additional information with more detail than an earlier view captured by MRO’s Context Camera (CTX). Data transmitted by Schiaparelli during its descent through the Martian atmosphere is helping the ExoMars team analyze why the lander’s thrusters switched off prematurely.
The show must go on
The orbital component of ExoMars, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), went into orbit around Mars on October 19, 2016. The TGO is currently in a 63,759-mile by 2,293-mile (101,000-kilometer by 3,691-kilometer) orbit with a period of 4.2 days. The spacecraft is functioning well and ESA expects it to take science calibration data during two orbits in November 2016.
In March 2017, the TGO will perform a series of aerobraking maneuvers to place it into a circular 250-mile (400-kilometer) orbit around Mars later next year.
Once in its intended orbit, the TGO will begin its primary science mission to study the atmosphere of Mars – searching for possible indications of life below the surface – and to act as a telecommunications relay station for landers and rovers on Mars, including ExoMars 2020.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.