European spacecraft goes silent right before difficult Mars landing

The “Mars Curse” may have claimed another victim.

Europe’s Schiaparelli lander, scheduled to settle into the Martian dust at 10:48 am ET Wednesday, went silent a minute or so before its expected landing time.

Engineers hoped to find out more from Europe's Mars Express spacecraft, which is now in orbit around Mars and perked up its ears for signals from Schiaparelli. But the recording made by Mars Express was "inconclusive," according to a tweet from the operations group of the European Space Agency, which operates both Mars Express and Schiaparelli.

Now engineers hope that NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, also circling the planet, can reveal Schiaparelli's fate. That data should be in hand later Wednesday afternoon ET.

Amid the anxiety about Schiaparelli, Mars did deliver some good news: the new Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft successfully swung into orbit around the planet Wednesday. The spacecraft will sniff out gases such as methane that might be a sign that life once occupied — or still does occupy — the fourth planet from the Sun.

If Schiaparelli didn’t touch down safely on Mars, it will join a long list of landers that fell prey to the challenges of the task. Over the past three decades, roughly half of all Mars missions – both orbiters and landers – have failed. Only seven craft have survived a landing with all faculties intact, all of them launched and operated by NASA.

It’s still possible that Mars Express will hear from the lander and relay the news to ground controllers, but “it doesn’t look great,” said Colin Wilson of Britain’s University of Oxford, who is responsible for one of the scientific instruments on Schiaparelli.

A signal transmitted from the lander to a giant telescope in India suggested the lander’s parachute deployed and then fell off, as planned. After the parachute was jettisoned, thrusters were supposed to fire to cushion the lander’s fall even more. But it’s not clear whether those thruster engines turned on as expected.

“It probably succeeded in the parachute phase,” Wilson said. “Then the question is, what happened?”

In previous failures, two Mars missions with European heritage nailed a landing but didn't achieve long-term survival. In 1971, the Soviet Union’s Mars 3 transmitted signals to Earth for only 15 to 20 seconds before ending contact, while the British Beagle 2 maintained complete silence. Other Mars-bound vehicles have slammed into the surface at high speed, burned up during entry or missed the planet altogether.

Schiaparelli's trip began in March, when it rode to space aboard a Russian rocket. For seven months, the lander was bound at the metal hip to the Trace Gas Orbiter. It shoved off the orbiter Sunday, and Schiaparelli began its solo, treacherous trip to Meridiani Planum, a flat area near the Martian equator.

Landing on Mars is so tricky that Schiaparelli, which is about as big across as a picnic table, was loaded up with four kinds of technology in the hopes of ensuring a successful descent to the planet’s surface. The spacecraft contained a heat shield to safeguard it from the broiling heat of streaking through the Martian atmosphere at some 12,000 mph and a parachute, with Kevlar lines and nylon canopy, to catch the ship as it bombed toward the planet.

Nine engines were on board, set to fire up and slow Schiaparelli even more before turning off six feet above the planet, putting the ship into free fall. Finally, the craft contained an aluminum crushable structure, like a car bumper, meant to absorb the brunt of the lander’s impact onto Martian soil and kept it from bouncing.

If Schiaparelli did survive, it won't have long to live. Lacking wheels and solar panels, the lander will die young in the spot where it first touched Martian soil. Still, if its landing is deemed successful, Schiaparelli will have met its central goal of testing technologies to be incorporated into a European-Russian Mars rover scheduled for launch in 2020.

As a bonus, over its lifespan of a few days, Schiaparelli would also beam back data about Martian dust and atmospheric conditions, and the measurements it took as it plummeted toward the planet will improve scientists’ understanding of the planet’s climate and weather.

Photos: Otherworldly and awe-inspiring space photos.


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