ExoMars landing site seen in new image

New images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appear to show the final landing site of the Schiaparelli lander, its parachute and heat shield.

An image of Schiaparelli’s landing site taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on 25 October. It appears to show the lander’s impact crater along with its parachute and heat shield.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

A new image of the final resting place of the ExoMars 2016 Schiaparelli lander appears to show debris from its crash landing spread over a distance of 1.5 kilometres.

ExoMars is the latest mission to search for signs of life on the Red Planet. While the Trace Gas Orbiter arrived in Mars orbit successfully on 19 October, the Schiaparelli lander lost contact with Earth just as it was due to have landed on the Martian surface. The most recent data suggest Schiaparelli’s parachute opened as planned but was released too early, while its thrusters did not do enough to slow its rate of descent, causing the lander to crash.

New images of Schiaparelli’s landing site have been captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, apparently showing the lander along with its parachute and heat shield.

In the image above, the bright white figure in the lower left is the lander’s parachute, while the grey dot just below is thought to be Schiaparelli’s back shell.

Top right can be seen more bright features surrounded by impact patterns, thought to be related to the impact of Schiaparelli’s heat shield on the Martian surface. The bright spots could be insulation material from the heat shield reflecting sunlight.

In the centre of the image and to the left can be seen markings probably left by the impact of the Schiaparelli lander itself on the surface of the planet. The main feature is about 8 feet in diameter and according to NASA is the shape and size that would be expected of an impact crater created by an object of the lander’s mass crashing into the planet. In this same area can be seen a dark, curved line stretching out from the impact, but this feature has so far not been explained. Surrounding objects could also be fragments of the lander that broke off when it impacted with the ground.

Despite the abrupt end to Schiaparelli’s mission, the Trace Gas Orbiter is continuing to operate as planned. Its mission is to search for signs of methane and other atmospheric gases that could be a sign of biological or geological activity. Previous investigations have detected small amounts of methane in the Martian atmosphere, and this could be evidence of activity occurring or having recently occurred on the Red Planet.

The ExoMars 2016 mission will pave the way for a further mission to the Red Planet in 2020 that will see a European and a Russian rover delivered to Mars to search for signs of life on and below the surface.

"ESA and its international team have added an important achievement to the exploration of Mars by putting the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around the Red Planet as a platform for science investigation and communication infrastructure," says Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. "Landing a spacecraft on Mars is extremely challenging. We admire the initiative and development of the teams that worked on the Schiaparelli lander that was part of the ExoMars mission. International collaborations, as well as future work with private industry remain crucial elements of the Journey to Mars and beyond."


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