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Mars lander’s potential crash site spotted

Images from NASA orbiter suggest that Europe’s Schiaparelli probe smashed on impact.

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Before-and-after images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter seem to show the impact of the Schiaparelli lander (fuzzy dark patch, 15 x 40 metres) and its parachute (bright white spot) on Mars.

A NASA spacecraft may have spotted the remains of the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) missing Mars lander. Two new surface features in images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are probably signs of the Schiaparelli lander, ESA announced on 21 October.

The lander was the second part of a European mission that reached the red planet on 19 October. The first portion, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), successfully took up position around Mars, while the lander began its descent to the surface. But at some point during the six-minute landing procedure, Schiaparelli’s minders lost contact with it.

On 20 October, the MRO captured a still image of the area where Schiaparelli is thought to have landed, which researchers compared with a picture of the same area taken in May this year. The before-and-after series shows a dark smudge appearing in the top left quadrant of the landing zone, along with a bright white dot near the bottom right. The bright dot is probably the lander’s 12-metre-diameter parachute, deployed during the descent’s second stage. The darker smudge is probably evidence of the lander.

Either Schiaparelli’s impact or a possible explosion could have disturbed the Martian surface, uncovering darker material that resulted in the black blob on the photograph, according to a statement put out by ESA. Researchers estimate that the premature shutdown of the lander’s thrusters put it into freefall between 2 and 4 kilometres above the surface of Mars. Schiaparelli would have hit the ground at more than 300 kilometres per hour. Because the fuel tanks for its thrusters were probably still full, it’s possible that the lander exploded on impact, ESA says.

Researchers are still reviewing data from the TGO, which monitored the lander’s descent. And they plan to take higher-resolution images of the landing area using the MRO’s HiRISE camera over the next two weeks. Using these, together with information from ESA’s Mars Express orbiter and data from the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Pune, India, the scientists hope to piece together exactly what happened to their lost lander.

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  • Alexandra Witze contributed reporting.

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