Images suggest Schiaparelli Mars lander exploded on impact

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Schiaparelli landing zone showing effect of the probable spacecraft impact and explosion(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

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It looks as if the Schiaparelli Mars landing ended not with a whimper, but a bang. According to ESA, images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) indicate the unmanned spacecraft exploded on impact with the Martian surface after falling from as high as 13,000 ft (4,000 m). Part of the Exomars 2016 mission, contact was lost with the demonstrator module on October 19 when it attempted a soft landing in the Meridiani Planum near the equator.

Since communications were lost with the Schiaparelli module shortly after it struck the Martian atmosphere at hypersonic speeds on October 19 at 14:42 GMT, mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, has been analyzing data from numerous sources. These include telemetry from the lander as recorded by its Trace gas Orbiter (TGO) mothership, signals monitored by the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in Pune, India, and ESA's Mars Express orbiter.

According to telemetry from Schiaparelli, the spacecraft carried out most of its preprogrammed sequences during its six-minute landing maneuver. Though the heat shield was jettisoned properly and the parachute deployed on schedule, the parachute and aeroshell were jettisoned too early and the retro rockets used for landing fired and cut off too soon. But the question remained, did the module survive the landing and could it signal Earth?

Schiaparelli landing zone (top) plus before (bottom left) and after (bottom right) impact images(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The answer may have come from the MRO. On October 20, the NASA orbiter used its low-resolution CTX camera to capture images of Schiaparelli's designated landing area. With a six-meter (20 ft) resolution, the new images show a drastic change in the touchdown point compared to ones taken in May.

The spacecraft's parachute and aeroshell were visible, but about 1 km (0.6 mi) north of the parachute was a dark feature measuring 15 x 40 m (49 x 131 ft). Preliminary analysis indicates this large patch marks the impact site of Schiaparelli after it fell from an altitude of 2,000 to 4,000 m (6,500 to 13,000 ft) and struck the ground at 300 km/h (186 mph). Since Schiaparelli was originally programmed to drop a mere two meters (6 ft) after its retros cut out, this was definitely outside its design parameters.

In addition, the size of the patch suggests the module had full propellant tanks at the time, which exploded on impact. ESA says it intends to examine the site again next week using the MRO's HiRISE high-resolution camera. The space agency hopes this will not only help gather more evidence of the crash, but locate the heat shield as well.

Despite the loss of Schiaparelli, ESA says that the engineering telemetry received will be very valuable in not only determining the cause of the crash, but in improving future Mars landers.

Source: ESA

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