It was meant to be the European Space Agency’s (ESA) chance to put their name in the history books, with the touchdown of the ExoMars lander on the surface of the red planet last month.

Unfortunately, in the last minute of its descent, the lander, dubbed Schiaparelli after the famous Italian astronomer, suffered a fatal malfunction. After analysis of the data that ESA received from Schiaparelli before the signal was lost, it seems that the probe successfully entered the Martin atmosphere without any issue.

However, the landing sequence suffered a computer glitch, which caused the lander to mistakenly believe it had already landed safely on Mars’ surface. In actual fact, the lander was still two kilometres above the ground, when the parachute deployed prematurely and three clusters of retrorockets, that were designed to allow the probe to descend gently, cut out. Consequently, experts believe Schiaparelli fell to the ground at a speed greater than 186mph and exploded upon impact.

This loss mirrors the failure of the UK’s Beagle 2 mission in 2003, when the craft did manage to land, but failed to make contact with home. If Schiaparelli had landed as planned, Europe would have joined the Soviet Union, Russia and the USA in having achieved a touchdown on the red planet.

Still, the mission wasn’t a total failure since the ExoMars spacecraft Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which carried the Schiaparelli lander for approximately 7 months, was able to successfully enter orbit around Mars. There, the TGO will analyse the atmosphere for gases like methane, which could be indicative of living organisms on the planet.

“experts believe Schiaparelli fell to the ground at a speed greater than 186mph and exploded upon impact”

So, what does the outcome of the first stage of the ExoMars project mean for the future of the second stage of the project that will launch in 2020?

In short, scientists need to learn from what went wrong and ensure it doesn’t happen again. On the plus side, the crash landing provided ESA scientists with a silver lining in the form of a huge pool of data to use to work out what went perfectly and what exactly went wrong.

An ExoMars Lander Prototype Source: Wikimedia Commons
An ExoMars Lander Prototype
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ExoMars mission itself is a joint two-part project from both Europe and Russia, the latter itself is a joint two-part project from both Europe and Russia, the latter half of which involves the launch of the ExoMars rover in 2020, a much larger six-wheeled vehicle built in the UK that will travel several kilometres across the surface whilst drilling into Martian soil. This drill is designed to extract and analyse various samples for organic substances.

Scientists believe that Mars once hosted a liquid water environment which key for life as we know it. Many believe that any life on Mars will likely be underground, in the form of single-celled microbes. The primary goal of Schiaparelli therefore, was to test Russia’s automated landing system that the ExoMars rover will use when it touches down on Martian soil in 2021.

The same computer as Schiaparelli will be used for the rover, alongside the same radar altimeter that measures the distance from the ground and the same inertial measurement unit, which monitors acceleration and landing trajectory. So you can understand why scientists are analysing all the available data they have from the Schiaparelli malfunction.

“a successful Mars mission would do wonders for Europe’s future space exploration, not only inspiring the next generation of scientists but also ensuring future investment in similar projects”

For the moment, the future of the ExoMars project remains at stake. Although production is still going ahead, the second stage of the project has already been pushed back from a planned 2018 launch to 2020 due to funding issues.

A project of this scale requires funding for hundreds of technical parts, experts and engineers. This issue is due to be discussed at a meeting in December but with the additional failure of Schiaparelli, it may be harder task for the space agency to convince ESA ministers that the mission will be ultimately successful, let alone persuade them to invest a further £270m towards the project.

exomars_trace_gas_orbiter
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the whole however, most countries are invested in the continuation of the project, with over 40 companies across Europe having invested around 1.3 billion euros collectively to help build the rover and fund its technology.

Clearly, a successful Mars mission would do wonders for Europe’s future space exploration, not only inspiring the next generation of scientists but also ensuring future investment in similar projects.

Europe deserves the chance to prove that it has the ability to do just as well as the other space giants, who have already put their stamp on the red planet, and earn its rightful place amongst the great space explorers. The ESA have said they will certainly learn their lesson from Schiaparelli for 2020 but it’s only when member states convene in December to discuss this unfortunate mishap that the future of the project will ultimately be decided.

Amie Peltzer is a past Biomedical Science graduate, current MSc Science Communication student and future world science advocate. Happy to talk about all the magical wonders of the scientific world. Sci-fi is a slight obsession, books are a definite escape: “We’re all stories in the end. So make it a good one.” 
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