Anxious wait for news of Mars lander's fate

High-stakes manoeuvres should see a lander dubbed Schiaparelli make a dash for the surface of Mars, while the Trace Gas Orbiter
High-stakes manoeuvres should see a lander dubbed Schiaparelli make a dash for the surface of Mars, while the Trace Gas Orbiter enters orbit in phase one of the ExoMars mission
Ground controllers on Wednesday celebrated placing a European-Russian robot explorer in Mars' orbit, but faced an anxious wait for news of the tiny lander it had despatched to the Red Planet's surface.

The paddling pool-sized "Schiaparelli" lander, a trial-run for a Mars rover to follow, was scheduled to land at 1448 GMT after a scorching, supersonic, dash through the thin atmosphere.

But the craft's signal disappeared towards the end of its six-minute descent, evoking the ghost of Europe's first effort to land on Mars 13 years ago, when the British-built Beagle 2 robot lab was lost.

"It's clear these are not good signs," ESA operations head Paolo Ferri said at ground control in Darmstadt, Germany on Wednesday. "But we need more information" before declaring Schiaparelli lost.

There could be "many, many reasons", for its silence, said Ferri.

It could mean the lander had exploded in the atmosphere or crashed on the surface, but also that it landed safely and was simply having trouble communicating.

The next update would be given at 0800 GMT on Thursday.

Schiaparelli and its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), comprise phase one of the ExoMars mission through which Europe and Russia seek to join the United States in probing the harsh Martian surface.

The pair had travelled seven months and 496 million kilometres (308 million miles) from Earth.

Schiaparelli's experiences were meant to inform technology for a much bigger and more expensive rover scheduled for launch in 2020—the second phase and high point of ExoMars.

The rover will be equipped with a drill to seek out clues of life, past or present, up to a depth of two metres.

Vital signs

The TGO, in turn, will aid the search for life by sniffing atmospheric gases potentially excreted by living organisms—however small or primitive.

Its science mission will start in early 2018.

Ground controllers cheered and clapped when it was confirmed Wednesday that the TGO had entered into its intended orbit around Mars, some 170 million kilometres from Earth.

"It's a good spacecraft in the right place, and we have a mission around Mars," flight operations manager Michel Denis announced in Darmstadt.

Schiaparelli's silence put a dampener on the celebrations, though ESA officials tried to look on the bright side.

"Whatever is going to happen, we will have learnt a lot of things because we will have data recorded of the descent," spokeswoman Jocelyne Landeau-Constantin told AFP.

"So, we already have quite a bit of lessons learnt."

And ESA director-general Jan Woerner added: "This is typical for a test."

"We did this in order to get data about how to land with European technology on Mars, therefore all the data we will get this night... will be used to understand how to manage... the next landing when we're going with the rover."

For a safe landing, Schiaparelli had to brake from a speed of 21,000 kilometres (13,000 miles) per hour to zero, and survive temperatures of more than 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,730 degrees Fahrenheit) generated by atmospheric drag.

It was equipped with a discardable, heat-protective "aeroshell" to survive the supersonic jaunt through Mars' carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.

It had a parachute and nine thrusters with which to brake its fall, and a crushable structure in its belly to cushion the final impact.

Schiaparelli had been free-falling to Mars' surface since Sunday, when it separated from the TGO.

While life is unlikely to exist on the barren, radiation-blasted surface, scientists say traces of methane in Mars' atmosphere may indicate something is stirring under the surface—possibly single-celled microbes.

Since the 1960s, more than half of US, Russian and European attempts to operate craft on the Martian surface have failed.

Explore further

Euro-Russian craft enters Mars orbit, but lander's fate unknown

© 2016 AFP

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Oct 19, 2016
This is incredibly annoying, seeing as it was meant to be a proving test for the ability to land. Especially so since the recent comet landing also had problems. Isn't it about time that the esa, sent some much cheaper missions to Mars, with the sole purpose of getting a landing right. Until they can be fairly certain that they are able to land, there seems little point on sending elaborate complex missions where the possibility of malfunction during landing is still unproven.

Oct 19, 2016
What do you mean, a cheaper mission, Someone?

Almost all of the cost of a Mars mission is in launch costs and ground control costs. There's no economic benefit to skimping on payload. If you're going to send a mission, load it up and try stuff.

The lander was experimental. Most of this mission's 'stuff' is in the orbiter. They got a successful orbital insertion and are communicating with it, so that's good. As for that little experimental lander, they'll hopefully obtain telemetry that will inform future designs. What's not to like?

Mars landings are really, really difficult. Nobody but NASA has ever gotten a mission down to the surface intact and operational. ESA knows its hard, so they piggybacked an experimental lander on the back of the main mission. Sure, it would be great if the lander got down intact. But even if it didn't, they'll learn from it. Which was kinda the point of it.

Oct 19, 2016
As for comet landing: yikes, man, that was the *first attempt ever* to put a lander on a comet. ESA didn't know much about what kind of surface it would be facing. That's engineering in the dark. You do the best you can, roll the dice and see what comes up. Turns out the surface was a whole lot more jagged and strange than the lander could handle, and they weren't lucky, either, as the lander ended up in shade.

And that's okay. That mission was successful; we harvested gobs of great data about that damn comet. And the failed landing will inform future attempts. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

ESA is doing marvelous and ambitious work on a skimpy budget. We should praise them for it.

Oct 20, 2016
@Urgelt, thanks for that info, fair enough. Maybe they could send a mission to Mars with the sole purpose of testing landing techniques. Maybe three different types of landers in a single mission, for example seeing as you say the main expense is getting the lander to Mars. With regards to the comet landing, sure that was absolutely amazing, I can't even believe they were able to steer a lander to the comet, but the landing mishap was as far as I understand it a simple malfunction with one of the 'hooks' that should have anchored it. It's frustrating that small mechanical malfunctions occur when they get all the rest of it right. Can't wait for a manned mission to Mars.

Oct 20, 2016
Someone, they won't send a single-purpose landing test mission. It's just too useful to send multi-purpose missions, you get more science for the buck that way.

Anyway I sort of left out a factoid about Mars landing missions. ESA planned this one a few years back. There's a lead time on these things! In the meantime, Elon Musk and Space-X presented a solution to NASA for landing cargoes on Mars that scales up and is experimentally verified in Earth's atmosphere: supersonic retropropulsion. It's the *only* Mars landing method - thus far - that will scale up well enough to land humans or heavy equipment. What ESA and NASA have done thus far with smaller cargoes won't scale up.

So the game has changed.

Anything ESA can learn from its experimental lander will apply only to small cargoes. Of course those guys knew that. But when they planned the mission, small cargoes were all that *could* be landed. Human footprints were a long way out and a lot of engineering away.

Oct 20, 2016
And that's still true. Knowing how to land heavier cargoes doesn't answer all of the problems Mars poses to humans landing on it.

We don't yet have a workable engineering solution to the problem of manufacturing fuel (probably methane) and an oxidizer (certainly oxygen) on Mars, cooling/pressurizing them, and delivering them to the tanks of a rocket from Earth for refueling.

We don't yet have a complete workable set of solutions for sustaining human life on Mars for more than a short period with energy, food, water, oxygen and protection from radiation, temperature extremes and likely soil toxins.

We can probably exploit robotics advances and AI to begin to answer these challenges. But for a number of years, experimental missions are going to be the rule, not the exception. And sometimes, those experiments are going to show us what *not* to do. By failing.

Every failure moves us a step closer to our goal.

Oct 20, 2016
Incidentally, it's probably wrong to characterize the failure of a hook-and-tether design on that Rosetta lander as a strictly a mechanical failure. It was a failure of the design *in the circumstance.* Rosetta's surface wasn't what they had hoped and expected it to be.

For a comparison, light planes are designed to land on flat surfaces (straight runways). They don't do so well in deep rugged twisting canyons.

When your destination is radically different from your assumptions, your designs are going to fail, often.

They could not send a mission to evaluate the surface, then send a follow-up lander mission with the right assumptions, because Rosetta wasn't going to be near the sun for very long. They had a narrow time window. That also would have cost a lot more, but it wasn't on the table anyway.

They did the best they could with available funding, and they harvested a lot of great science. I grade the Rosetta mission as a 'win.'

Oct 20, 2016
@Urgelt, excellent informative answers, I almost feel that this is not the comment section!

Oct 20, 2016
Wait, did we just have a civil conversation here? At

*smacks forehead* Damn. What were we thinking?

This article doesn't seem to be drawing many views. Maybe none of the regulars will notice!

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