Sudden impact? Latest data points to parachute problem for ESA's Mars lander

Artist's concept of Shiaparelli deploying its parachute(Credit: ESA)

ESA's Schiaparelli lander module remains out of contact while mission control in Germany seeks answers as to the fate of the unmanned probe. Data transmitted today from the ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mothership suggests Schiaparelli's parachute may have opened too early during atmospheric entry on October 19, causing the probe to crash on the surface of the Red Planet.

Today's announcement comes after Wednesday's successfully orbit insertion by the TGO around Mars after a 136-minute engine burn. While the mothership was carrying out the maneuver, Schiaparelli, which had detached from the TGO three days before, executed a six-minute atmospheric entry intended to set it down safely on the Martian surface.

Though the module's radio beacon was detected by the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in Pune, India, contact was lost soon afterward as Schiaparelli plunged into the Martian atmosphere at hypersonic speed. Meanwhile the module, as programmed, continued to transmit data to the TGO and ESA's Mars Express orbiter, and the TGO began transmitting its data to mission control on Thursday.

According to ESA, preliminary analysis of the telemetry indicates that the lander module carried out most of its steps as planned during the descent. Its resin heat shield protected it as it slowed down to supersonic speeds, it jettisoned properly, and the parachute deployed as expected. However, the signals sent received by GMRT and Mars Express stopped before touchdown.

The problem appears to be that the Schiaparelli module may have jettisoned its aeroshell and parachute too early, causing the retro rockets to fire too soon, and there are indications that they shut down early as well. If this is so, then the module may have struck they ground at high speed and has been destroyed, but the space agency stresses that a watching brief continues and more analysis needs to be done.

"In terms of the Schiaparelli test module, we have data coming back that allow us to fully understand the steps that did occur, and why the soft landing did not occur," says David Parker, ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration. "From the engineering standpoint, it's what we want from a test, and we have extremely valuable data to work with. We will have an enquiry board to dig deeper into the data and we cannot speculate further at this time."

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