A tiny lander despatched to Mars on a trial run had crashed and possibly exploded on the Red Planet, mission control said Friday, confirming Europe’s second failed attempt to reach the alien surface. The paddling pool-sized Schiaparelli craft “crashed on the surface of Mars”, Thierry Blancquaert told AFP from European Space Agency (ESA) mission control in Darmstadt, Germany –ending two days of uncertainty about the lander’s fate. A NASA photograph of the intended landing site revealed the 600-kilogramme craft, offline for two days, had “reached the Martian surface a lot faster than intended,” he said.
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The image contained a white spot, thought to be the doomed lander’s parachute spread out on the alien surface, some 170 million kilometres from Earth.
About two kilometres from the white spot is a larger, black patch with fuzzy outlines, some 15 by 40 metres –interpreted as Schiaparelli’s crash site.
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The black spot is “larger than it would have been if Schiaparelli was in one piece”, flight director Michel Denis told AFP. “It is smashed.”
The ESA said the lander’s speed-breaking retro-rocket boosters appeared to have switched off prematurely.
“Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between two and four kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 kilometres per hour,” it said in a statement.
“It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full.”
Engineers and scientists are combing through the data Schiaparelli sent home before its untimely demise, to piece together exactly what happened.
Schiaparelli was on a test-run for a future rover meant to seek out evidence of life, past or present, on the Red Planet.
But it fell silent seconds before scheduled touchdown, while its mothership Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) entered Mars’ orbit as planned.
The pair comprised phase one of a project dubbed ExoMars through which Europe and Russia seek to join the United States in operating a succesful rover on Mars.
Europe’s first attempt, in 2003, also ended in disappointment when the British-built Beagle 2 robot lab disappeared without trace after separating from its mothership, Mars Express, in 2003.