While the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter by the European/Russian space agencies (ESA/Roscosmos) seems to have successfully entered the correct orbit around Mars, ESA’s Mars lander, Schiaparelli seems to have been lost on its way down to the surface.
There are growing fears a European probe that attempted to land on Mars on Wednesday has been lost. Tracking of the Schiaparelli robot’s radio signals was dropped less than a minute before it was expected to touch down on the Red Planet’s surface.
Satellites at Mars have attempted to shed light on the probe’s status, so far without success. One American satellite even called out to Schiaparelli to try to get it to respond. The fear will be that the robot has crashed and been destroyed. The European Space Agency, however, is a long way from formally calling that outcome. Its engineers will be running through “fault trees” seeking to figure out why communication was lost and what they can do next to retrieve the situation.
This approach could well last several days.
One key insight will come from Schiaparelli’s “mothership” – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). As Schiaparelli was heading down to the surface, the TGO was putting itself in a parking ellipse around Mars. But it was also receiving telemetry from the descending robot.
If the lander is indeed lost, it will be the second failure of a European Mars lander after the failure of Beagle 2 in 2003.
Beagle 2 was a British landing spacecraft that formed part of the European Space Agency’s 2003 Mars Express mission. The craft lost contact with Earth during its final descent and its fate was unknown for over twelve years. Beagle 2 is named after HMS Beagle, the ship used by Charles Darwin.
The spacecraft was successfully deployed from the Mars Express on 19 December 2003 and was scheduled to land on the surface of Mars on 25 December; however, no contact was received at the expected time of landing on Mars, with the ESA declaring the mission lost in February 2004, after numerous attempts to contact the spacecraft were made.
Beagle 2‘s fate remained a mystery until January 2015, when it was located intact on the surface of Mars in a series of images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera. The images suggest that two of the spacecraft’s four solar panels failed to deploy, blocking the spacecraft’s communications antenna.
The ESA’s plans and budget for landing a six-wheeled roving vehicle on Mars in 2021 will face further critical scrutiny. The rover is expected “to use some of the same technology as Schiaparelli, including its doppler radar to sense the distance to the surface on descent, and its guidance, navigation and control algorithms”.
ESA has an annual budget of about €5.25 billion.
Of course the EU sees the ESA as a matter of prestige first (and science, only second) which does help to protect the budget.
Perhaps some “frugal engineering” (a la ISRO) is called for.