Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Spies Schiaparelli Crash Site

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) imaged the ExoMars Schiaparelli module’s landing site on 25 October 2016, following the module’s arrival at Mars on 19 October.  The zoomed insets provide close-up views of what are thought to be several different hardware components associated with the module’s descent to the martian surface. These are interpreted as the front heatshield, the parachute and the rear heatshield to which the parachute is still attached, and the impact site of the module itself.  In the image, north is up; west to the left. Schiaparelli was travelling from west to east. The image scale is 29.5 cm/pixel. The brightness of the individual zooms have been adjusted to best reveal the features against the martian surface in each case. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has spotted the crash site of Schiaparelli, the lander portion of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars 2016 mission. Images taken Oct. 25 by MRO’s High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera show three impact locations within about 0.9 miles (1.5 kilometers) of each other.

ESA lost contact with the lander during its Oct. 16 descent into the Martian atmosphere just seconds prior to a planned touchdown on the surface. It is assumed Schiaparelli’s thrusters shut off prematurely, resulting in a much longer free-fall than the lander was designed to handle.

HiRISE’s imagery of the site includes three locations where hardware reached the ground. A dark, roughly circular feature is interpreted to be where the lander itself struck. A pattern of rays extending from the circle suggests that the lander excavated a shallow crater upon impact. This would be expected, given the premature engine shutdown. According to a media release from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Media Relations Office:

About 0.8-mile (1.4 kilometers) eastward, an object with several bright spots surrounded by darkened ground is likely the heat shield. About 0.8-mile (1.4 kilometers) south of the lander impact site, two features side-by-side are interpreted as the spacecraft’s parachute and the back shell to which the parachute was attached. Additional images to be taken from different angles are planned and will aid interpretation of these early results.

The new HiRISE imaging is providing additional information with more detail than an earlier view captured by MRO’s Context Camera (CTX). Data transmitted by Schiaparelli during its descent through the Martian atmosphere is helping the ExoMars team analyze why the lander’s thrusters switched off prematurely.

The orbital component of ExoMars, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), went into orbit around Mars Oct. 19. TGO is currently in a 63,759-mile by 2,293-mile (101,000-kilometer by 3,691-kilometer) orbit with a period of 4.2 days. The spacecraft is functioning well and ESA expects it to take science calibration data during two orbits in November 2016.

In March 2017, TGO will perform a series of aerobraking maneuvers to place it into a circular 250-mile (400-kilometer) orbit around Mars later next year.

Once in its intended orbit, TGO will begin its primary science mission to study the atmosphere of Mars – searching for possible indications of life below the surface – and to act as a telecommunications relay station for landers and rovers on Mars, including ExoMars 2020.

Written by: Bart Leahy
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