Mars lander crash casts doubt on Britain’s own rover project

Schiaparelli lander © Pline / Wikipedia
European Space Agency (ESA) plans to send a British-built rover to Mars have been cast into doubt after scientists lost contact with a test craft shortly before it made impact with the red planet earlier this week.

The Schiaparelli lander is believed to have crashed because of a glitch in its software, a senior scientist told the Times.

As scientists scour radio signals sent out by the probe in its last minutes of life, ESA officials are preparing to ask EU ministers for further funding to complete the mission.

The first stage of Europe’s €1.3 billion (£1.2 billion, $1.22 billion) ExoMars program involved sending a stationary lander, Schiaparelli, to the surface of Mars.

The lander was meant to measure wind speed and direction, humidity, pressure, and surface temperature.

The next stage of the program will see a British-built rover, assembled by Airbus Defence and Space in Hertfordshire, sent to the red planet.

However, the future of the ExoMars program is now in question following the failure of Schiaparelli to successfully land on the surface of Mars.

Schiaparelli separated from its mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter, on Sunday, three days before reaching Mars’ atmosphere and making its descent to the surface.

By mid-afternoon (GMT) Wednesday, the lander had zoomed through the planet’s outer atmosphere.

At this point, something went wrong. The probe’s parachute appears to have jettisoned too early and the craft’s retro-rocket engines – which were meant to slow Schiaparelli down over a 30-second blast – only fired for three or four seconds.

It sounds like it was a software error with the thrusters,” Professor Mark McCaughrean told the Times.

What’s interesting is that the bits which did work, the heat shield and the hypersonic parachute, are very difficult to test on Earth, whereas the last part, the thrusters, we can go off and test now.

The senior scientific adviser to the ESA said fluctuations in the Martian atmosphere combined with dust in the air could have played a role in the crash.

The ExoMars mission is conducted by the ESA in corroboration with Russia’s Roscosmos.