For the second time in the last 13 years, the European Space Agency (ESA) has lost contact with a spacecraft just moments before its landing on the surface of Mars. The ESA’s Schiaparelli probe fell to a high-speed impact with the surface of Mars last Thursday when it stopped responding about a minute before its anticipated touchdown.
The ESA confirmed that Schiaparelli stopped transmitting just fifty seconds before the end of its 500 million kilometer journey. Telemetry data suggests that the parachute was deployed too early, and the rockets designed to bring it to a standstill before landing fired for just three to five seconds, as opposed to the intended thirty, leading to an unexpected impact and severe damage to the lander.
Scientists are saying that the mission has not been a complete failure. The probe still managed to provide around 400,000 pages of information for scientists to analyze. The ESA will continue to attempt to reset the probe’s transceiver, but this may prove difficult with the non-rechargeable batteries designed to last only a few days and the crash speed estimated at about 180 miles per hour.
This failed landing recalls memories of the British built Beagle 2 spacecraft failing to softly land on Mars in 2003. Beagle 2 was scheduled to land on the surface of Mars on Christmas Day, 2003, but no contact was received at the time of arrival even after a successful deployment the previous day. Later attempts were made to contact Beagle 2 but without success, leaving its fate a mystery until it was located in NASA images in January 2015.
Schiaparelli was never intended to for a long-term mission – the main role was to test European landing technologies. If the ESA member states provide the remaining $330 million funding, engineers will attempt to correct errors from Schiaparelli in preparation for the joint European-Russian ExoMars mission in 2020, which will search for evidence of past or present life on Mars.