Mars - A Spacecraft Graveyard

It is a common saying that one-fourth of the spacecrafts sent to Mars perish. Ever since humans began sending spacecrafts to the red planet, landing a spacecraft on Mars has always been a daunting task. In 2003, the European Space Agency (ESA) sent the Beagle 2 to Mars and unfortunately lost communications with the spacecraft before it Beagle 2 could land on Mars. Its fate was unknown for 12 entire years before NASA’s HiRISE camera on-board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter came up with visual evidence that the craft had indeed landed on the surface of Mars. ESA’s Schiaparelli lander, a part of the ExoMars mission also has a similar story to tell.

The ExoMars mission, a collaboration between Europe’s ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos is a two step mission; the first step consists of the Trace Gas Orbiter and a lander named after Giovanni Schiaparelli; part 2 of the ExoMars mission looks forward to landing a rover on the planet. Launched in March 2016, the Trace Gas Orbiter and the lander along with it zoomed across space for seven months until they parked at the red planet in October.

Spacecrafts on Mars (Source: NASA, ESA)

The Schiaparelli lander separated from its parent orbiter on 16th October and began its three day journey to the Martian surface. The lander was destined to land in a region called the Meridiani Planum, a region near the equator known to be rich in minerals which form in the presence of water. This region is also home to NASA’s Opportunity rover which continues to explore the area till date. The Schiaparelli lander was designed to test the current landing technology to pave way for the more ambitious 2020 rover, while the orbiter, TGO would act as a communication relay between the rover and Earth.

During the entry and descent stage, the lander continually kept relaying telemetry data to the Mars Express spacecraft (which is in orbit around Mars) and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT)located near Pune, India. However, the spacecraft fell silent 50 seconds before the estimated time of touchdown. The data sent during the entry and descent phase was analysed to come up with possible scenarios that might have caused the spacecraft to go silent.

It is now clear that the parachute deployed earlier than expected in addition to the retrorockets functioning for a much shorter time than it was supposed to. Engineers estimate that the lander had a free-fall from a height of 2 km and stuck the surface at a staggering speed of 300km/h. This means that the lander might have had quite an explosion when it encountered the surface due the remaining fuel which wasn’t used up by the retrorockets.

Recently, NASA’s CTX camera on-board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured an image of the region and identified a dark patch, confirming the high velocity impact of the spacecraft. Yet, a more detailed image is awaited, one which will be taken by the HiRISE camera on MRO.

Image of Schiaparelli landing site captured by MRO (Source: NASA)

Despite the blow of losing yet another spacecraft to Mars’ unforgiving atmosphere, ESA is focusing on the TGO which has entered a highly eccentric Martian orbit, standing by the old saying “The show must go on”. ESA officials have announced that although the lander might be dead, the telemetry data downlinked to Earth serves as valuable information to help improve the designs of the 2020 rover mission which will follow.

And thus the same old story of space exploration continues, the human race will continue to send spacecrafts and Mars will claim its victims every now and then with its harsh environment. But every once in a while, when we luckily get our eyes and ears on the surface of the red planet, we gain scientifically and our understanding of us and our neighboring planets improves by a significant amount. It is this spirit of exploration with which we must continue to send our robot descendants to unknown and unexplored worlds.

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