Schiaparelli: Mars probe’s fate unclear after signal cuts off before landing

Schiaparelli: Mars probe's fate unclear after signal cuts off before landing
Schiaparelli: Mars probe's fate unclear after signal cuts off before landing

The carrier signal from Schiaparelli recorded by Mars Express abruptly ended shortly before landing, just as the beacon tone received by a ground-based radio telescope in India stopped in real-time earlier today.

What we know thus far: The relay station in India picked up a signal as expected during descent, suggesting that the parachute deployed and that the lander separated. However, the signal appeared to cut out. Now Mars Express data appears to agree. However, the ESA team is still analyzing the data, including new information from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbite — experts will be working through the night to assess the situation. Expect an update Thursday morning.

The landing was set to occur today on Meridiani Planum at 10:48 a.m. EDT / 14:48 UT. The landing targeted a 15- by 100-kilometer ellipse. Signals from the Entry, Descent and landing demonstration Module (EDM), Schiaparelli, were picked up by the Giant Metre Wave radio Telescope (GMRT) near Pune, India. The signal picked up by the Earth-based GMRT was extremely faint, as expected, but those signals were confirmed by the more recent Mars Express relay.

Running on batteries only, Schiaparelli was built to function for only two to eight sols before succumbing to the austere Martian environment. The EDM lander’s primary mission was a proof of concept, a demonstrator to test the landing platform for the full scale ExoMars rover that will launch in 2020. Schiaparelli’s main science was to be carried out during descent, though it will also briefly analyze the environment on the surface using its Dust characterization, Risk assessment and Environment Analyzer on the Martian Surface (DREAMS) package.

“Landing during the start of dust storm season is not really a deliberate plan, but it will provide a unique opportunity,” says EDM project manager Thierry Blancquaert (ESA). “Because this is a technology demonstration mission, most of the key information will come from the descent phase.”

Meanwhile, high overhead, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter fired its engines at 13:15 UT/3:15 PM CEST today, giving the Red Planet a miss and entering orbit to begin science operations as planned. TGO gave us all a start on Sunday, when ESA controllers briefly lost telemetry for about an hour post Schiaparelli separation. All is well now, as the orbiter settles in for science operations in a 4-sol orbit around the Red Planet.

It’s getting crowded around Mars now: orbital roll call includes NASA’s MRO, MAVEN, and Mars Odyssey, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, and the ESA’s Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter. The latter will serve as a data relay for the 2020 ExoMars rover.

Waiting for Schiaparelli: What to Expect in the Days Ahead

Assuming it made it safely to the Martian surface, Schiaparelli will temporarily power its transmitter down to conserve precious battery power. Mars Express, MAVEN, and stations on Earth will listen for Schiaparelli until the Trace Gas Orbiter is back in range to resume relay.

If Schiaparelli phones home over the next 24 hours, watch for those 15 descent images snapped by the Descent Entry Camera (DECA) once every 1.5 seconds on the way down. DECA is fixed on the lander’s underside to chronicle the descent, so we don’t expect to see any surface images from Schiaparelli post landing. (unless, of course, it lands on its side, just right!)

Also, there’s no word yet if NASA’s nearby Opportunity rover spied Schiaparelli in the act of landing from its perch on Endeavour crater, though it’ll probably only nab a pixel or two at most.

The vigil and recovery effort to contact for the Schiaparelli lander is now underway. We’ll update the developing story of the Schiaparelli landing as it unfolds.

If successful, watch for final science results from the short Schiaparelli mission by the end of the month. One week may not sound like much, but it will pave the way for a longer stay in 2020.

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