It is a saying we get tired of hearing: “space is hard.” Most often it a reflection of the cold reality of every aspect of space, but it can also be an excuse to cover questionable decisions or poor engineering.
Mars has a way of pushing for answers on both.
On Wednesday, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter, part of the ExoMars 2016 mission, safely entered orbit around the Red Planet. It is functionally normally, and appears to be in excellent shape.
At the same time TGO was performing its orbital insertion maneuver, the Schiaparelli descent module went silent just before it was expected to touch down. Based on telemetry, it is now presumed destroyed.
From the European Space Agency:
“Early indications from both the radio signals captured by the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), an experimental telescope array located near Pune, India, and from orbit by ESA’s Mars Express, suggested the module had successfully completed most steps of its 6-minute descent through the martian atmosphere. This included the deceleration through the atmosphere, and the parachute and heat shield deployment, for example.
But the signals recorded by both Pune and Mars Express stopped shortly before the module was expected to touchdown on the surface. Discrepancies between the two data sets are being analysed by experts at ESA’s space operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
The detailed telemetry recorded by the Trace Gas Orbiter was needed to better understand the situation. At the same time as Schiaparelli’s descent, the orbiter was performing a crucial ‘Mars Orbit Insertion’ manoeuvre – which it completed successfully. This important data were recorded from Schiaparelli and beamed back to Earth in the early hours of Thursday morning.
The data have been partially analysed and confirm that the entry and descent stages occurred as expected, with events diverging from what was expected after the ejection of the back heat shield and parachute. This ejection itself appears to have occurred earlier than expected, but analysis is not yet complete.
The thrusters were confirmed to have been briefly activated although it seems likely that they switched off sooner than expected, at an altitude that is still to be determined.”
ESA officials are stressing that the Schiaparelli lander was intended as an engineering test module designed to pave the way for the much larger and more capable lander/rover which is supposed to comprise the second half of the bifurcated ExoMars mission. Considered under that light, the apparent failure should still be considered a valuable contribution due to the descent data received.
Perhaps, but if the data does not reveal what exactly went wrong, the prospect for funding and launching the second half of the perpetually conflicted ExoMArs campaign, may be very much in doubt.