A European lander that descended to Mars on Wednesday has failed to send signs of life to its mothership, leaving scientists uncertain whether it touched down on the Red Planet gently as planned, or crashed and broke apart, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.
“We’ve had two overflights (by Mars orbiters) and there was no signal,” ESA Spacecraft Operations Manager Andrea Accomazzo told journalists on Thursday.
The disc-shaped 577-kg Schiaparelli, which is testing technologies for a rover due to follow in 2020, represents only the second European attempt to land a craft on Mars. 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.
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 meanwhile 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 21,000 km per hour.
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 David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration.