London: Based on preliminary interpretation of a new image captured by a camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the European Space Agency (ESA) believes that its Schiaparelli Mars lander might have exploded on impact during its arrival on the Red Planet on October 19.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has identified new markings on the surface of the Red Planet that are believed to be related to ESA’s ExoMars Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing technology demonstrator module.
“Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between two and four kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h,” ESA said in a statement on Friday.
ESA’s ExoMars Schiaparelli entered the martian atmosphere on October 19 for its six-minute descent to the surface, but contact was lost shortly before expected touchdown.
Data recorded by its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, are currently being analysed to understand what happened during the descent sequence.
In the meantime, the low-resolution CTX camera on-board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took pictures of the expected touchdown site in Meridiani Planum on October 20 as part of a planned imaging campaign.
The new image shows a bright spot that may be Schiaparelli’s parachute, and a larger dark spot interpreted as resulting from the impact of the lander itself following a much longer free fall than planned, after thrusters switched off prematurely.
“It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full,” ESA noted.
These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis, it said.
ExoMars 2016 is the first part of a two-fold international endeavour conducted by ESA in cooperation with Roskosmos in Russia that will also encompass the ExoMars 2020 mission.