A European and Russian robot that was supposed to touch down on Mars on Wednesday probably crashed during landing.
According to the European Space Agency, radio signals from the ExoMars Schiaparelli lander that were picked up by an Earth telescope and a Mars orbiter suggest that Schiaparelli performed most of its six-minute descent maneuver according to plan.
But sometime after deploying its parachute and heat shield and just before touching down, the lander stopped communicating. It hasn’t been heard from since.
A NASA spacecraft also stopped communicating Wednesday, although its problems may be less dire. The Juno probe, which entered orbit around Jupiter in July, went into safe mode several hours before a flyby. A software glitch may have prompted Juno to reboot its main computer.
The Schiaparelli lander would have been the first operable spacecraft from the European Space Agency or the Russian Federal Space Agency to successfully land on Mars. It is part of the ExoMars astrobiology mission, which successfully put a satellite into orbit around the Red Planet on Wednesday.
Telemetry data beamed to Earth from the orbiter suggests that the lander may have jettisoned its heat shield too soon. It also seems that Schiaparelli’s thrusters, which were supposed to slow its descent, were turned off earlier than expected.
The Schiaparelli lander was able to muster a hazy transmission during its descent, letting engineers know that its parachutes had deployed.
But then, nothing.
For several tense hours, telescopes around the globe were trained toward Mars, each listening for a faint signal from the newest arrival on the planet. Just before noon Eastern time, ESA’s Mars Express orbiter began transmitting a packet of data from the lander to scientists on Earth, but the recording was inconclusive. A few hours later, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over the spot where Schiaparelli was to have landed but did not pick up a signal.
“The tension mounts: Has Schiaparelli fallen victim to the Great Galactic Ghoul, Mars-probe predator since the 1960s?” astronomer Jonathan McDowell wondered on Twitter. The ghoul – which supposedly roams the darkness between Earth and its neighbor, snapping up hapless spacecraft attempting to reach Mars – is a joke invented in 1964 to explain why so many Mars missions fail.
Carcasses of dozens of expired and unsuccessful missions litter the Martian terrain. Among them is the Beagle 2 lander, which the ESA landed on the planet in 2003 but never heard from again. More than a decade later, images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter confirmed that the Beagle 2 had failed to deploy its solar panels and antenna.
More than 50 percent of all missions to Mars have resulted in lost spacecraft, crash landings, failed batteries and a host of other disasters.
Five orbiters – NASA’s Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance and MAVEN orbiters, ESA’s Mars Express and the Indian Space Research Organization’s Mars Orbiter Mission – and two rovers – NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity – operate around or on the Red Planet.
Uncertainty over the Schiaparelli lander overshadowed Wednesday’s successful insertion Wednesday of a sixth orbiter, the ExoMars mission’s Trace Gas Orbiter. It will spend the next several years scanning the Martian skies for methane and other gases that could be signs of life.
Wednesday was also meant to be a momentous day for NASA’s Juno spacecraft. It was set to fire its main engine for the first time and maneuver into a new trajectory that would pass close to Jupiter’s surface more often.
But last week, a set of valves in the engine’s fuel-pressurization system were sluggish when scientists executed a command sequence. The mission team decided to hold off on the scheduled burn, which meant keeping the craft’s current orbit until December. Yet they hoped to have all of the spacecraft’s instruments turned on for the close planetary pass it would make Wednesday.
Instead, Juno went into safe mode several hours before that flyby. In safe mode, the spacecraft ensures that it’s facing the sun to receive solar power, then turns off its scientific instruments and any nonessential components to protect them for several hours or days.
Juno was about 13 hours away from its planned close encounter when it entered safe mode, so scientists think it unlikely that Juno was damaged by an interaction with Jupiter.
“We were still quite a ways from the planet’s more intense radiation belts and magnetic fields,” Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
“The spacecraft is healthy, and we are working our standard recovery procedure.”
The next chance for close-range data collection will come Dec. 11. At that time, NASA might again try to slip it into the new orbit.
If the transition is successful, the orbiter will make close passes of Jupiter every two weeks instead of every two months.
The team is analyzing data from Juno’s initial flyby in late August, which gave scientists their first tantalizing glimpse below Jupiter’s roiling clouds.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Sarah Kaplan, Rachel Feltman
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