About C.C. Petersen

I am a science writer and media producer specializing in astronomy and space science content. This blog contains news and views about these topics.

Nobody Said Mars Was Easy

Schiaparelli Apparently Crash-lands on Mars

After a successful orbital insertion of the ExoMars spacecraft and detachment of the Schiaparelli lander a few days ago, we were all waiting anxiously for news from the Schiaparelli lander after it settled onto the Mars surface. Alas, it was not to be. Communications from the lander ceased 50 seconds before touchdown. Telemetry indicated that problems with the parachute caused it to detach prematurely. The thrusters didn’t fire long enough. And so, Schiaparelli apparently plunged the final distance to the surface of the planet. From all appearances, it looks like the lander crashed and was destroyed.

Mars schiaparellii crash site

This comparison of before-and-after images shows two spots that likely appeared in connection with the Oct. 19, 2016, Mars arrival of the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli test lander. The images are from the Context Camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter/NASA.

Mars  Reconnaissance Orbiter’s camera captured a before-and-after look at the landing site. The parachute is clearly visible, along with a dark spot not too far away. That dark spot is very likely Schiaparelli. The mission team, elated over the success of the orbiter (which is working fine) is surely now grieving the loss of the lander. They reported the following:

“Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. The relatively large size of the feature would then arise from disturbed surface material. It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full. These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis.”

That further analysis will include looks at images from the HiRISE camera aboard MRO when it takes another look at the site.

We Do These things Because They are Hard

Whenever something like this happens in space, I am reminded of the words of John F. Kennedy in 1962 when he gave his “we choose to go to the Moon” speech. He was pointing out that space is hard. Humans shouldn’t shy away from doing the hard things, because surmounting odds and doing the hard stuff well is how we move ahead in any endeavor.

Mars is Hard

We all know by now that exploring Mars is challenging. About two-thirds of the missions sent to the Red Planet since the 1960s have met with disaster. That fact alone tells me that planning missions for Mars, whether they have crews or not, is still not a slam-dunk. Things can happen. Most of them have nothing to do with Mars and everything to do with human error or technological problems.

The same is true for missions to other places, too. Lunar landers, Jupiter orbiters, Saturn flybys, even the successful mission past Pluto in 2015 all had problems. Not all were fatal. In many cases, scientists and engineers were able to find solutions quickly and implement them. That’s what I mean by surmounting the odds and doing the hard stuff well. The ESA teams involved with ExoMars and the Schiaparelli lander are learning from this incident. Their next spacecraft will incorporate changes to avoid problems. They will be better for the disaster. That’s the way this space exploration thing works. We learn from our mistakes and we move on.  I wish them all the best in the next endeavor. Like all other spacecraft crews, they deserve it!



Volcanism: A Solar System-Wide Process

Volcanoes Make Worlds What They Are

iceland and the effect of volcanism

Part of the spreading center in Iceland, in Thingvellir National Park.

I just returned from a week in Iceland, which is a marvel of volcanism. It lies astride a spreading center where two of Earth’s tectonic plates are moving apart. In the process, lava wells up and creates new land. It’s one way that Earth keeps forming, some 4.5 billion years after it began to accrete.

Iceland is completely volcanic. Everywhere you look are basaltic lava flows of various ages. Volcanoes such as Eyjafjallajökull  and Hekla and Bárðarbunga periodically spew lava out. In addition to creating new surface area, the high heat melts glaciers and sends water rushing across the surface. The land around the spreading center is filled with hotspots where geysers send heated water to the surface. Lava flows deep underground heat the water, which makes its way to the surface over and over again.

The heated water also provides geothermal power for the island, in abundance. Sure, Iceland’s volcanoes occasionally disrupt life on the island and beyond, but the fact is, they also create breathtakingly gorgeous scenery and help the locals out with their power needs.

Venus and Volcanism

venus volanic flows

Lava flow units on Venus, mapped by the Venus Express orbiter (ESA).

Volcanic action doesn’t just take place on Earth. Venus is quite active, and its volcanoes appear to be flowing into modern times. In particular, the Venus Express mission (sent by the European Space Agency) mapped recent flows in a place called Idunn Mons, in the southern hemisphere of the planet.  Normally you can’t see anything happening on the planet due to the cloud cover, but the instruments aboard the orbiter were able to slice through and do an infrared scan of the surface.

How recent are these flows? The scientists aren’t saying yet, but in geologic terms, “recent” means in the last few million years. Chances are they’re much younger than that, since Venus is known to be very active. Its flows have built up a number of high mountains on the planet, while in other places hot spots create pancake domes and spidery-looking cracks where lava wells out. So, like Earth, Venus is still building itself after all these billions of years.

Volcanoes Elsewhere

cryovolcano on Titan

A radar image of Doom Mons, a cryovolcano on Saturn’s moon Titan. NASA

We also know that Mars has volcanic mountains and that it was geologically active earlier in its history. Is it still active deep down? Future missions will look for geothermal activity deep beneath the surface, heated by the last remaining hotspots in Mars (if there are any). Farther out in the solar system, active volcanoes exist on Jupiter’s moon Io. It vents lava and sulfurous compounds and is the most distant of the rocky moons to do so. Beyond it lie ice worlds, and they also exhibit their own forms of volcanism. Europa, Enceladus, Titan, and Triton, and even Pluto are known for their cryovolcanic action. It happened to other ice worlds in the past, and their surfaces show the evidence.

Volcanism in all its forms is a powerful surface-changing process on worlds in the solar system. It played a role in shaping (and sometimes wiping out) life on Earth, and in other forms on ice worlds may play a role in providing a safe, warm haven for developing life.  For those reasons, and many others, planetary scientists investigate volcanic activity no matter where they find it. It’s the continuation of starbirth and planetary formation in a very local, fascinating way.