Yet Another Missing Mars Mission Probe Prompts Conspiracy Theorists
Written by Sarah Kaplan
Mars’s “Great Galactic Ghoul” may have claimed another victim: Scientists at the European and Russian space agencies were unable to make contact with their ExoMars Schiaparelli lander in the hours after it was slated to touch down on the Red Planet Wednesday.
The lander would have been the first operable spacecraft from either the European Space Agency or the Russian Federal Space Agency to successfully land on Mars. It is part of the ExoMars astrobiology mission, which also put a satellite into orbit around the Red Planet Wednesday.
The Schiaparelli lander was able to muster a hazy transmission during its descent, letting engineers know that its parachutes had deployed. But then, nothing. For several tense hours, telescopes around the globe were trained toward Mars, each listening for a faint signal from the newest arrival on the planet. Just before noon Eastern, ESA’s Mars Express orbiter began transmitting a packet of data from the lander back to scientists on Earth; that recording was inconclusive. A few hours after that, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over the spot where Schiaparelli was to have landed and failed to pick up a signal.
The outlook seems grim.
“The tension mounts: Has Schiaparelli fallen victim to the Great Galactic Ghoul, Mars-probe predator since the 1960s?” astronomer Jonathan McDowell wondered on Twitter. The ghoul — which supposedly roams the darkness between Earth and its neighbor, snapping up hapless spacecraft attempting to reach Mars — is a joke invented in 1964 to explain why so many Mars missions fail.
The uncertainty overshadowed the successful orbital insertion of the Schiaparelli’s sister spacecraft, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). The maneuver was conducted on the far side of the planet, out of reach of Earth-based telescopes. But just before 1 p.m., the TGO pulled out of Mars’s shadow and sent its first transmission home. Initial checks on the spacecraft’s health looked positive and around 3 p.m., ESA confirmed that everything had gone according to plan.
There are also carcasses of dozens of expired and unsuccessful missions littering the ground. Among them is the Beagle 2 lander, which the ESA landed on the planet in 2003 but never heard from again. More than a decade later, images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter confirmed that the Beagle 2 had failed to deploy its solar panels and antenna.
That breakdown underscores how rare successful landings are. More than 50 percent of all missions to Mars have resulted in lost spacecraft, crash landing, failed batteries, and a host of other disasters.
ESA scientists will be working through the night to obtain a signal from Schiaparelli. Telemetry from the TGO is due to arrive overnight, and they hope that the data and images could explain what happened to the little lander. That information could be as valuable — if not more — as a successful landing, because the lander’s main goal was to test the technology for a future robotic mission slated for 2020. Sometimes understanding what went wrong can be more educational than having everything go right.
The primary scientific instruments for the mission are all on board the TGO, which will spend the next several years scanning the Martian skies for methane and other vital gases that could be signatures of life. (You can read more about ExoMars’s scientific goals here).
ESA will hold a briefing Thursday morning to update on the status of both spacecraft.
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