The European Space Agency (ESA) is hailing its ExoMars mission a success despite mystery over the fate of a lander supposed to have touched down on the Red Planet.
Signals from the disc-shaped Schiaparelli probe stopped just before its scheduled landing on Wednesday, although a parachute to slow its descent did deploy.
“Not only did it functionally work from a timing point of view but also the heat shield that is protecting the capsule throughout this atmospheric phase at high velocity has worked flawlessly,” ESA Spacecraft Operations Manager Andrea Accomazzo told a news conference on Thursday morning.
“From the data we have collected, we can also see that the hardware has provided meaningful data. Now it is a matter to analyse why, when we put together this data in the Martian environment, the spacecraft did not behave exactly as we expected.”
Euronews reporter Jeremy Wilks was present at the news conference in Darmstadt, Germany.
Might be the parachute ended too early, or it was jettisoned too low #Schiaparelli— Jeremy Wilks (@WilksJeremy) 20 octobre 2016
“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.
While scientists try to work out why that happened, their mission does have brighter news.
The lander’s mothership known as the TGO – or Trace Gas Orbiter – is functioning and successfully in orbit around Mars – seeking signs of life.
“This has been very, very successful,” Accomazzo said.
“All parameters we have recorded from the TGO were absolutely nominal, so it is the second time we have had a successful orbital insertion around Mars, 13 years after Mars Express.”
All being well, the second part of the Exomars mission, a collaboration with Russia’s space agency, will deliver a European rover to the Red Planet in 2020 – able to move across the surface of Mars and drill into the ground to collect and analyse samples.