Contact lost with Schiaparelli lander as ExoMars 2016 arrives at the Red Planet

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The TGO is now in Mars orbit, but contact with the Schiaparelli module is lost(Credit: ESA)

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Today was a mixed bag for ExoMars 2016. While the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) arrived safely at Mars, contact has been lost with the Schiaparelli lander module. According to ESA, the joint European/Russian TGO carried out a 139-minute engine burn starting at 13:05 GMT today that placed it in an elliptical orbit around the planet. However, mission control in Darmstadt, Germany lost contact with Schiaparelli shortly before it entered the Martian atmosphere at 14:42 GMT and has not been reestablished.

ESA says the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt is continuing to listen for any signals from the Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), Schiaparelli using the space agency's Mars Express, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probes, as well as the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in Pune, India. The battery-powered module is designed to transmit telemetry at preset intervals.

Schiaparelli was released from the TGO mothership on October 16 and coasted for three days, slipping in and out of hibernation to conserve battery power as it went. ESA says its radio beacon was detected by the GMRT 70 minutes before atmospheric entry, but was lost before the six-minute landing sequence was automatically initiated. Because Mars is currently 175 million km (109 million mi) from Earth, a radio signal takes nine minutes and 45 seconds to reach it, so Schiaparelli was programmed to carry out all landing functions autonomously.

If the module was operating as planned, it would have struck the Martian atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Protected by its resin heat shield, Schiaparelli would have jettisoned its shield after slowing down and deployed its parachute at an altitude of 11 to 7 km (7 to 4 mi). At 1,100 m (3,600 ft), it would have fired its retro rockets to slow its descent until it was just 2 m (6 ft) above the ground, then it would free fall with the impact absorbed by a crushable structure on the underside of the module.

The planned landing site of Schiaparelli is an ellipse in the Meridiani Planum region near the equator. According to ESA, the module's batteries could last up to 10 days, which provides a number of opportunities to re-establish communications. If it survived the landing, the probe is designed to automatically carry out experiments and return images. However, since the module is a technology demonstrator ahead of the planned ExoMars 2020 mission that includes a Russian lander and a European rover, these are of a limited nature.

ExoMars 2016 launched on March 16, 2016 atop a Russian Proton-M/Breeze-M from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and consists of the TGO and Schiaparelli. Mission control says the TGO is in good health and is now in its planned orbit, where it will begin studying the Martian atmosphere. Meanwhile, a listening brief for the lost lander continues.

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