October 22, 2016 – NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has identified 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 October 19.
Schiaparelli entered the martian atmosphere at 14:42 GMT on October 19 for its 6-minute descent to the surface, but contact was lost shortly before expected touchdown. Data recorded by its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, are currently being analyzed to understand what happened during the descent sequence.
The new image shows a bright spot that may be Schiaparelli’s parachute, and a larger dark spot interpreted as resulting from the impact of the lander itself following a much longer free fall than planned, after thrusters switched off prematurely. It was taken by the Context Camera (CTX) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and is available online, as a before-and-after comparison with an image from May 2016, at:
The location of the bright spot interpreted as the parachute is 353.79 degrees east longitude, 2.07 degrees south latitude, closely matching ESA’s calculation for the landing location based on landing-day data. This is within the planned landing area and about 3.3 miles (5.4 kilometers) west of the center of the landing target. A dark spot is larger and elliptical, approximately 50 by 130 feet (15 by 40 meters). It may be where the lander reached the surface and exposed darker ground.
Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full. These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis.
The location information gained from acquiring the CTX image will be used to take a closer look next week using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, the highest-resolution camera onboard MRO. These images may also reveal the location of the front heat shield, dropped at higher altitude.
The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA researchers will analyze the images for information about the sequence of events on Schiaparelli’s landing day, possibly supplementing data transmitted from the test module during its descent.
The teams continue to decode the data extracted from the recording of Schiaparelli descent signals recorded by the ExoMars TGO in order to establish correlations with the measurements made with the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), an experimental telescope array located near Pune, India, and with ESA’s Mars Express from orbit. Since the module’s descent trajectory was observed from three different locations, the teams are confident that they will be able to reconstruct the chain of events with great accuracy. The exact mode of anomaly onboard Schiaparelli is still under investigation.
The test lander is part of ESA’s ExoMars 2016 mission, which placed the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars on October 19. The orbiter will investigate Mars’ atmosphere and provide relay communications capability for landers and rovers on the surface. The spacecraft is working well and will take science calibration data during two orbits in November 2016.
With CTX, HiRISE and four other instruments, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been investigating Mars since 2006.
Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates CTX. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, built the HiRISE camera. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado, built the orbiter and collaborates with JPL to operate it.