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Mars: graveyard of broken dreams and landers
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Oct 20, 2016

Europe's Mars lander: What do we know?
Paris (AFP) Oct 20, 2016 - Scientists and engineers were piecing together clues Thursday to the fate of Europe's "Schiaparelli" Mars lander, which fell silent just seconds before its scheduled touchdown on the Red Planet.

Some are holding out hope, but initial data suggests the craft, a test-run for a European-Russian Mars rover, ran into trouble.

What European Space Agency (ESA) experts have gleaned so far from data Schiaparelli sent home:


Schiaparelli is on Mars.

Not known:

Where exactly, in how many pieces, or whether it is "awake".


Schiaparelli entered Mars' outer atmosphere at 1442 GMT on Wednesday, as scheduled, for what should have been a six-minute dash to the surface.

Not known:

Where the lander was when its signal dropped out, about 50 seconds before scheduled touchdown.


The first tool in Schiaparelli's defence arsenal, a shield against the scorching heat generated by atmospheric drag, had worked. If not, the next phase -- deployment of a supersonic parachute, would not have happened.

Not known:

Why the shield, with parachute attached, seems to have been jettisoned too early.


The parachute deployed.

Not known:

Whether the parachute was discarded too early, or somehow malfunctioned so that the lander was already too close to the surface when its rocket brakes kicked in.


The third piece of protective hardware, speed-breaking retro-rockets did fire but only for three or four seconds -- "much shorter than what we were expecting," according to European Space Agency (ESA) head of solar and planetary missions Andrea Accomazzo.

Not known:

Whether all nine rockets fired.


Schiaparelli has onboard batteries designed to last at least four sols (a sol is a Mars days of about 24 hours and 40 minutes), and at up to 10 or 12 sols.

Not known:

If it is intact and switched on, Schiaparelli is consuming battery power, which means time could be running out for mission controllers to try and make contact via its transceiver -- a device that can transmit and receive messages.

The lander was designed to prepare for a bigger and more expensive rover set for launch in 2020, and ESA officials insist that even a crashlanding would yield important lessons.

"The test is there to get data, to get some knowledge, and we got the knowledge, we got the data," said ESA director general Jan Woerner.

Further analysis of the information gleaned should allow for a full reconstruction of events, added Accomazzo, though this could take some time.

Source: ESA

Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, has become a veritable graveyard for landers and rovers despatched to its surface from neighbouring Earth.

Only the United States has successfully operated rovers on the Red Planet, four in all, and has lost only one stationary lander.

The former Soviet Union had chalked up repeated failures, while Russia's first attempt at a rover will be a joint mission along with Europe dubbed ExoMars.

If data shows that Europe's Schiaparelli lander crashed into the Red Planet on Wednesday, it will be the second failed attempt for Europe in 13 years.

Overall, almost half of all attempts to land on Mars since the 1960s have ended in disappointment.

A recap of surface-bound missions that missed the mark.

- USSR - Russia -

The Soviet Union (USSR) was the first to attempt to place a craft on Mars.

A launch failure spoiled its first bid in 1962, followed in 1971 with its Mars 2 lander becoming the first pile of man-made debris on the Red Planet.

Less than a week later, Mars 3 became the first craft to make a soft Mars landing, though contact was lost after mere seconds and the mission was chalked up as a partial failure. A small "walking" rover on board Mars 3 did not deploy.

Moscow tried again in 1973 with its Mars 6 and Mars 7 landers, but contact with the first was lost as it reached the surface, and the second never penetrated the Martian atmosphere.

Pre-touchdown communications were lost with two further would-be landers, Fobos 1 and Fobos 2, both launched in 1988.

- The United States -

After more than a decade of Soviet attempts, the US was successful on its first attempt -- the Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers launched in 1975.

They were followed in 1996 by the Mars Pathfinder, a science station and base for the Sojourner rover -- the first motorised robot to be operated by humans beyond the Earth or Moon. The only US failure was its Mars Polar Lander which failed to touch down in 1999.

It has subsequently placed three more rovers on the Red Planet: Spirit and Opportunity in 2003, and Curiosity in 2011. The latter two are still criss-crossing the alien Martian surface.

- European Union -

Europe's first attempt to land on Mars saw the British-built Beagle 2 lander disappear without trace after separating from its Mars Express mothership in 2003.

A NASA photo last year showed finally that the craft had touched down, but its battery-recharging solar panels failed to deploy and it was unable to communicate.

European Space Agency scientists are trying to establish the fate of their Schiaparelli lander, launched in March as a test run for a Mars rover due for launch in 2020.

Schiaparelli separated from its Trace Gas Orbiter mothership on Sunday but signal was lost just seconds before it was to touch down on Mars three days later.

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