Contact with Mars lander lost seconds before planned landing

FRANKFURT/BERLIN • A European lander that descended to Mars has failed to send signs of life to its mothership, leaving scientists puzzling over whether it touched down on the Red Planet gently as planned, or crashed and broke apart, the European Space Agency (ESA) said yesterday.

"We've had two overflights (by Mars orbiters) and there was no signal," ESA Spacecraft Operations Manager Andrea Accomazzo told journalists.

The paddling pool-sized lander called Schiaparelli, which weighs nearly 600kg, was scheduled to touch down late on Wednesday Singapore time after a scorching, supersonic dash through Mars' thin atmosphere to conclude a 496 million km journey from Earth.

But the signal was lost before touchdown - evoking the ghost of Europe's first, failed bid to land on Mars 13 years ago. Britain's Beagle 2 was sent down by the Mars Express spacecraft in 2003 but never made contact after failing to deploy its solar panels on landing. Its remains were finally spotted in a Nasa photograph last year.

Schiaparelli, meant to test technologies for a rover due to follow in 2020, represents only the second European attempt to land a craft on Mars. The primary part of the current Russian-European ExoMars mission, bringing the Schiaparelli lander's mothership into orbit around Mars to search for signs of life, was a success.

Scientists said they had received data from Schiaparelli covering its entry into the Martian atmosphere and the deployment of its heat shield and parachute, which were designed to slow it from a speed of 21,000kmh.

But its thrusters, also used to slow down the lander, appeared to have fired for only a few seconds, much shorter than expected. The transmission stopped around 50 seconds before the planned touchdown on Mars, they said. "We need to understand what happened in the last few seconds before the planned landing," said Mr David Parker, ESA's director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration.

Schiaparelli had travelled for seven years onboard the joint European-Russian Trace Gas Orbiter to come within a million kilometres from Mars on Sunday, when it set off on its own mission to reach the surface.

The pair comprised phase one of the ExoMars mission, through which Europe and Russia seek to join the United States in probing the alien Martian surface.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2016, with the headline 'Contact with Mars lander lost seconds before planned landing'. Print Edition | Subscribe