Microscopy & Microtechniques

All You Need to Know About the Schiaparelli Space Probe

Oct 27 2016 Read 2231 Times

It’s no easy feat landing a spacecraft on Mars. As head engineers fronting the European-Russian ExoMars 2016 mission found out when they attempted to make spaceflight history and land the Schiaparelli Space Probe on the surface of the Red Planet.

The stakes were high, and the disappointment was even higher when the lander failed to touch down on the Martian surface on October 19. Had it gone ahead, the Schiaparelli landing would have marked the beginning of the first successful Red Planet surface mission powered by Europe and Russia.

Schiaparelli sent to a dusty grave

Though despite input from two of the most advanced space agencies on the planet, the landing technology didn’t deliver. The launch itself was a success, with two separate Proton rockets powering an orbiter, lander and rover into space. Though as it made its descent, data reveals that at 4 minutes and 41 seconds into its 6-minute fall, Schiaparelli’s heat shield and parachute ejected prematurely. This meant that the thrusters designed to decelerate the probe for 30 seconds were only able to engage for 3 seconds before the lander’s computer automatically commanded them to switch off. Analysts estimate that the crash landing saw the craft hit the planet’s surface at 300 kilometres per hour, with a NASA spacecraft later snapping images of its dusty gravesite.

The silver linings

Painful as it is, the ESA has been quick to stress that the ExoMars mission is still a triumph. Not only was Schiaparelli able to transmit test data from the majority of its descent, but its Trace Gas Orbiter sister craft managed to successfully manoeuvre into Martian orbit. From here, it will study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and search for traces of biological or geological methane.

“As it is, we have one part that works very well and one part that didn’t work as we expected,” comments Jorge Vago, project scientist for ExoMars. “The silver lining is that we think we have in hand the necessary information to fix the problem.”

The team also asserts that they now have valuable insight into what went wrong, and how to ensure the success of the upcoming 2020 mission.

“That’s super important. I think it’s on everybody’s mind,” says Vago.

As well as cutting edge advancements in outer space, exciting new developments are also playing out on Planet Earth. ‘Electron Microscopy; A Platform Advancing Science at the Crick’ celebrates the long awaited opening of London’s new Francis Crick Institute, an iconic building that will host 1250 researchers working together to discover the basic biology underlying human health.

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