Sunday, October 23, 2016

NASA Spacecraft Eyes Remains of ESA’s Schiaparelli Lander

A NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Context Camera (CTX) image taken on 20 October 2016. This is the ‘after’ image in the pair of images taken to locate the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, which shows two new features appearing following the arrival of the module on 19 October.  One of the features is bright and can be associated with the 12-m diameter parachute used in the second stage of Schiaparelli’s descent, after the initial heat shield entry. The parachute and the associated back shield were released from Schiaparelli prior to the final phase, during which its nine thrusters should have slowed it to a standstill just above the surface.  The other new feature is a fuzzy dark patch roughly 15 x 40 metres in size and about 1 km north of the parachute. This is interpreted as arising from the impact of the Schiaparelli module itself following a much longer free fall than planned, after the thrusters were switched off prematurely. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has confirmed the worst fears of the ExoMars team by identifying new markings on the surface of the Red Planet that are believed to be related to Europe’s Schiaparelli test lander, which arrived at Mars on Oct. 19. Schiaparelli’s signal cut off about 50 seconds before its planned touchdown.

The new images show a bright spot consistent with Schiaparelli’s 39-foot-wide (12 meters) parachute, and a 50-by-130-foot (15 by 40 meters) dark spot thought to be the aftermath of a high-speed impact by the lander after a much longer free fall than was planned. This was caused by the thrusters prematurely switching off. The image was taken by the low-resolution Context Camera (CTX) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and can be seen here: Schiaparelli.

The location information gained from acquiring the CTX image will be used for imaging the site with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s other camera, the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). These images will then be analyzed by European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA researchers for information about the sequence of events on Schiaparelli’s landing attempt. These could possibly supplement data transmitted from the test module during its descent.

The location of the bright spot which is being interpreted as the parachute is located at 353.79 degrees east longitude, 2.07 degrees south latitude. It closely matches ESA’s calculation for the landing location based on landing-day data. This is within the planned landing ellipse and about 3.3 miles (5.4 kilometers) west of the center of the landing target, ESA officials said.

Schiaparelli’s main task was to prove the technologies required to get the ExoMars 2020 rover on the ground safely in 2021. ESA officials have said that Schiaparelli’s descent through the Martian atmosphere will be useful in this respect, even though the probe didn’t survive the landing.

While Schiaparelli was hurtling through the Martian atmosphere on Wednesday morning, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) was executing a 139-minute, crucial engine burn to place into orbit around the Red Planet. This latter maneuver was successful, and the TGO is now circling the planet every 4.2 days on a highly elliptical path, ESA officials said.

If everything goes as it is currently planned, starting in 2017, the orbiter will investigate concentrations of methane and other trace gases in Mars’ atmosphere and provide relay communications capability for landers and rovers on the surface. Before this happens, the TGO will use the planet’s atmosphere to gradually circularize its orbit, a process known as aerobraking.

Built by Lockheed Martin and costing an estimated $720 million, MRO was launched on August 12, 2005, and entered into orbit above the surface of the Red Planet in March of 2006.

Written by: Eric Shear
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