Europe’s Schiaparelli lander did not behave as expected as it headed down to the surface of Mars on Wednesday. Telemetry data recovered from the probe during its descent indicates that its parachute was jettisoned too early. The rockets it was supposed to use to bring itself to a standstill just above the ground also appeared to fire for too short a time.
The European Space Agency (Esa) has not yet conceded that the lander crashed but the mood is not positive. Experts will continue to analyse the data and they may also try to call out to Schiaparelli in the blind hope that it is actually sitting on the Red Planet intact. In addition, the Americans will use one of their satellites at Mars to image the targeted landing zone to see if they can detect any hardware. Although, the chances are slim because the probe is small.
For the moment, all Esa has to work with is the relatively large volume of engineering data Schiaparelli managed to transmit back to the “mothership” that dropped it off at Mars – the Trace Gas Orbiter. This shows that everything was fine as the probe entered the atmosphere. Its heatshield appeared to do the job of slowing the craft, and the parachute opened as expected to further decelerate the robot. But it is at the end of the parachute phase that the data indicates unusual behaviour.
“We cannot resolve yet under which, let’s say, logic that the machine has decided to eject the parachute. But this is definitely far too early compared to our expectations,” Andrea Accomazzo, the head of operations for Esa’s planetary missions, told BBC News.