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 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!