Mars lander's crash site snapped by orbiting camera

The European Space Agency's Schiaparelli lander, part of the test ExoMars mission, hit the red planet's surface at more than 300 kilometres an hour.

Cosmos editors 28 October 2016

This 25 October image shows the area where the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona

Looks like the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli lander did crash on the red planet after all, with images snapped by NASA's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appearing to show the parachute and other bits and pieces strewn across 1.5 kilometres of Martian surface.

A dark, roughly circular feature is probably where the lander struck. A pattern of rays extending from the circle suggests that a shallow crater was excavated by the impact, as expected given the premature engine shutdown.

The dark curving line to the northeast of the dark spot is unusual for a typical impact event and not yet explained. Surrounding the dark spot are several relatively bright pixels or clusters of pixels. They could be image noise or real features – perhaps fragments of the lander. A later image is expected to confirm which of these is the case.

Around 1.4 kilometres to the east, an object with several bright spots surrounded by darkened ground is likely the heat shield.

And around 900 metres south of the lander impact site, two features side-by-side are interpreted as the spacecraft's parachute and the back shell to which the parachute was attached.

Additional images to be taken from different angles are planned and will help interpretation of these early results.

According to the ExoMars project, which received data from the spacecraft during its descent through the atmosphere, the heat shield separated and the parachute deployed as planned, but the parachute was released (with back shell) prematurely, and the lander hit the ground at more than 300 kilometres per hour.

This HiRISE observation adds information to what was learned from observation of the same area last week by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's Context Camera (CTX). Of these two cameras, CTX covers more area and HiRISE shows more detail.

The Schiaparelli test lander was one component of ESA's ExoMars 2016 project, which placed the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars on the same arrival date.

Curated content from the editorial staff at Cosmos Magazine.