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Lost on Mars

Boris Bethge The Schiaparelli module during testing: fatal impact at 300 km per hourBoris Bethge

The goal of the European Space Agency (ESA) to send a vehicle to Mars in the next four years to explore the planet’s surface suffered a setback on October 19, 2016, when the Schiaparelli module crashed onto the surface of Mars traveling at more than 300 km per hour. It was ESA’s first attempt at landing on Mars. To date, only NASA has been successful in these types of missions. Apparently, the Schiaparelli module erred in calculating its distance from the surface, as it jettisoned a parachute too soon and turned off thrusters that were capable of slowing the fall. The purpose of the voyage was precisely to test the ability of the Europeans to land on the planet; the module would send back images for at least one week before its batteries died. Johann-Dietrich Wörner, ESA Director General, says that the mission was not a failure because the Trace Gas Orbiter probe, which carried the Schiaparelli module, accomplished its mission when it entered Martian orbit, from which it will analyze the planet’s atmosphere. In addition, it was a success because the module sent back enough data about the landing to show what worked and what did not. ESA’s risk is political in that the incident may interfere with the agency’s attempt to obtain funding needed for the mission to Mars in 2020.