Did Europe Just Crash Its Mars Lander Into The Red Planet?

Landing on Mars is really hard and the latest European probe may not have survived the attempt.

Europe lost contact with it’s Schiaparelli Mars lander one minute before it was supposed to touch down on the surface of the red planet Wednesday, leading to fears the spacecraft may have crashed.

The ExoMars 2016 mission, a partnership between the European Space Agency and Russia consists of the Trace Gas Orbiter, which is now circling the red planet, and the lander, which may now be lost, reports the ESA.

“The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) of ESA’s ExoMars 2016 has successfully performed the long 139-minute burn required to be captured by Mars and entered an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet, while contact has not yet been confirmed with the mission’s test lander from the surface.”

Schiaparelli Mars lander. [Image by ESA]

The ESA is still hoping its Schiaparelli lander made it safely to the surface of Mars, and the agency plans to release more information on Thursday after making contact with its satellites around the red planet.

The Mars Express spacecraft, an older European probe still in orbit around the red planet, is searching for the lost lander as is a NASA orbiter, but so far there have been no conclusive signals.

The ESA, however, is claiming the mission as a success saying the space agency recorded important data about how to land on Mars with European technology, ESA Director Jan Woerner told Reuters.

“We have to wait a little bit to see what happens with the test lander. But this (mission) is already a success so far.”

A signal sent from the lander suggests it successfully deployed its parachute, but after that, no knows what happened. The spacecraft should have fired its landing thrusters after releasing the parachute and floated gently to the Martian surface, but if that had happened ESA engineers should have heard from the lander by now.

The Schiaparelli lander began its mission in March when it launched into space aboard a Russian rocket attached to its mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter. For the next seven months, the brave robot hurtled toward the red planet before separating from its mother ship Sunday beginning a three-day approach.

The small craft was armed with four different technologies designed to help it make a safe descent. The Schiaparelli lander, about the size of a saucer-shaped picnic table, was outfitted with a heat shield, a parachute with Kevlar lines and nylon canopy and nine landing thrusters designed to cut off six feet above the surface.

The craft also sat atop a crushable aluminum structure meant to absorb the landing impact and keep the probe functioning, but the design may not have succeeded.

Landing on Mars is really difficult.

Europe has already seen two of its Mars landers fail after touching down on the red planet while a Soviet Union probe stopped transmitting after only 20 seconds during a 1971 mission.

The British also attempted to land a spacecraft on the Mars, but the Beagle 2 only managed a “heroic failure” and was never heard from after making touchdown on the red planet.

Only seven spacecraft have managed to successfully land on the Martian surface.

The Schiaparelli was designed as a spacecraft demonstrator to test the ability of the ESA to successfully land a craft on the red planet in preparation for a Mars rover project set to launch in 2021.

ESA Trace Gas Orbiter. [Image by ESA]

The project was designed as a way to look for alien microbes on Mars while testing important technology; the good news is the TGO managed to make it into orbit and is functioning normally.

The TGO will continue its mission of sampling the Martian atmosphere in its quest to discover whether life ever existed there, Woerner told Reuters.

“If there is life in our solar system beyond Earth, then Mars is the most interesting planet.”

The next phase of the mission comes in 2020 when Europe will launch a Mars rover atop a Russian rocket.

The status of the European lander also calls into question Elon Musk’s goal of launching cargo ships to Mars and landing a human expedition on the red planet as early as 2024. Getting to Mars is one thing, successfully landing there is quite another.

[Featured image by ESA]